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Testing Ground

CES 2021: Virtual exhibition, but real developments

By Alban Amouroux |

An unusual situation, and an unusual exhibition. Because of the public health situation of which we are all aware, the traditional Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is taking place online for the first time ever. The presentations are all online but they are still reserved for consumer electronics professionals and the press. In spite of everything, manufacturers have not stopped working and innovating in recent months: on the contrary. Proof of that is offered by these selected new releases in the fields of ultra-high definition video, 3D audio and multimedia interfaces.

Brighter and brighter images

This year, developments in televisions are focused on image quality. Whether in 4K or 8K, HDR (Dolby Vision and/or HDR10+) is already fairly widespread. This technology increases the dynamics of the image, that is, the difference between the darkest and brightest elements, to get closer to what the eye sees in reality. HDR has a wide operating latitude to generate peaks of brightness that are limited by the capacity of the displays. The boost in brightness and contrast power which is coming in 2021 has been achieved by providing TVs with finer and more powerful backlighting. To achieve this, TCL, like LG, use mini-LED technology which is based on a dual screen: an LED screen for the backlight, an LCD screen for the image.

This season, then, developments in televisions hinge around this feature, with greater dynamics for ever-more vivid images. It is true that this is one of the most important criteria for producing a realistic image. The other primary criterion is the number of frames per second, which is changing with the recently formalised HDMI 2.1 standard. This opens the door to 8K at 60 Hz and 4K at 120 Hz. The latter is essential for video games but could also be used for movies in the near future. As for 8K, there is a little less talk, because the content is still not all there.

TVs that offer easier access to our favourite content

The on-screen interface takes a new turn with Google TV and webOS 6. Connected TVs operate through an interface offering content, services and applications. For example, Android TV, created by Google, is used by Philips, Sony and TCL. After several changes, Android TV is becoming Google TV. The interface is simplified again to favour cross-platform content. The first choice offered to the user is called "for you". It gathers recommendations corresponding to the user's tastes presented in a uniform way, whether they come from Netflix, myCanal or YouTube, among other examples. Applications are therefore sent into the background and content enters the foreground. This is very interesting, now that we are overwhelmed with new series and new movies every week.

As for webOS 6, it is the latest version of the interface created by LG for its TV ranges. It also focuses on users' favourite content, regardless of the application. These interfaces can be controlled via TV remote controls but also by voice: Google Assistant for Google TV, and a choice between Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa for webOS 6. Staying with video services for connected TVs, Sony has simply presented its own VOD service: Sony Bravia Core. Bear in mind that Sony is among the major names in cinema, with a catalogue of films which are enticing enough to generate interest (Sony / Columbia / TriStar). This streaming service will be available exclusively in Ultra-HD 4K, with HDR and IMAX Enhanced on the latest content. That is, the quality of a lossless UHD Blu-ray. This will require a fibre internet connection and a latest-generation Sony Bravia 4K XR TV.

Bigger and bigger interfaces, even in cars

At a time of increasingly digitised content and automation of devices in our everyday lives, interfaces are important. Google TV and webOS 6 are also access points for the functions of a connected home. They not only control music and video, but also light, security, heating and everything related to household appliances with robot vacuum cleaners, fridges and ever-smarter washing machines. The same is true of automobiles, where screens are multiplying, and becoming larger and larger. Here, too, they provide extensive access to user content, while providing complete and unified control of functionality. Mercedes presented its MBUX Hyperscreen dashboard consisting of a giant 55" screen. In its Vision S "rolling lab", Sony is also working on quality of life for passengers. This involves autonomous driving, many sensors related to the driver's actions but also a horizontal screen occupying the entire dashboard as well as screens for the rear passengers.

These interfaces are of course associated with increasingly complex sound reproduction systems that break free from the limits of the interior thanks to advanced audio signal processing and a multiplicity of speakers. Quality solutions, such as the return of the iconic McIntosh to Jeep for a 19-speaker system called the MX950. Panasonic and Klipsch have teamed up to offer a Dolby Atmos certified package for the car. Let's not forget Sennheiser, which is working on an on-board variant of its Ambeo 3D audio technology.

360° sound in wireless headphones and speakers

3D audio is a fundamental trend in the world of sound. The goal today is to virtualise sound, to make it more immersive. This is already applied to soundbars that need to reproduce surround channels without a physical surround speaker. In this field, Samsung has introduced new bars with AirPlay 2 compatibility. TCL also offers a new series of Atmos-enabled bars with built-in voice assistants: the Alto range. As for Panasonic, the Japanese manufacturer is following the path made by its competitor Yamaha and its SR-C20A, that is to say an immersive sound minibar dedicated to gaming to place between the keyboard and the monitor. This Panasonic SC-HTB01, Atmos/DTS: X compatible and optimised for some games, has received a CES Innovation Award.

But 3D audio is also underway in speakers. This is the main angle of the new Sony SRS-RA3000 and SRS-RA5000 wireless speakers. Both models feature multiple speakers oriented in all three planes to reproduce sound via Sony's 360 Reality Audio technology. It is also compatible with smartphones using any headset. Sony is making audio processing tools available to creators to generate 360° music. Harman Kardon is launching a new range of wireless speakers with Radiance 2400. These are very thin columns, a few centimetres in diameter, capable of diffusing sound through 360°. They are accompanied by a separate subwoofer for low frequencies. After mono and then stereo, 3D could well become a staple in music consumption. Already applied to soundbars, 3D is now aimed at the other two main consumer audio markets - headphones and wireless speakers.

Vintage and Modern Hi-Fi at the same time

CES is rarely the place where new Hi-Fi products are unveiled, as these do not really obey an annual schedule, unlike televisions. High-fidelity players are therefore less present, with the exception of brands belonging to large groups. JBL, a part of Samsung, is taking advantage of CES to celebrate its 75 year anniversary. The iconic American brand is unveiling an integrated amplifier that could become a benchmark product. The SA750 sports a deliberately vintage look, with aluminium facade, large buttons and wooden side panels. But all this hides a decidedly modern device with UPnP & Roon streamer, but also automatic audio calibration via Dirac Live. It is complemented by a 75th anniversary edition of the L100 monitor speakers. They enjoy a built-in wood veneer, an improved woofer and passive filter. These L100 75th are a limited edition of only 750 pairs worldwide.

Although virtual, this edition of CES did not disappoint in terms of consumer audio/video novelties. There is no revolution, but real evolution. This is thanks to the integration of technologies that have proven themselves in professional environments before being offered to us in a mature state. This means both the explosion of interfaces - in terms of both their quantity and their display surface - and their rationalisation, with a real focus on the presentation of information and content. These are condensed, personalised and dynamically adapted to every user, according to their tastes, habits and preferences.