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Firmly In Focus(HKTDC Electronics, Vol 01,2008)

HI-DEF AV World

Wood adds a touch of class to Wesonic Industries Ltd's HD stereo headphones

The high-definition revolution stole the spotlight at the world's biggest consumer electronics show

Buyers and manufacturers came from near and far to feast their eyes upon the latest gadgets and trends at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas each January.

The biggest, the best and some small but interesting companies showed the consumer electronics world all they had to offer, but it was high-definition (HD) AV that caught most eyes this year.

Panasonic took centre stage with an enormous 150-inch plasma display whose approximately three-metre-wide by two-metre-high screen provided a virtual cinematic experience courtesy of a 2,160 x 4,096 resolution that was four times the 1080p HD specification and just as bright as its 'smaller' 103-inch sibling.

The company also displayed a range of 'normal' Viera PZ850 plasma flat screens that ranged in size from 46-65 inches and can be connected to an IP address to provide Internet Protocol TV (IPTV).

"IPTV is a technology that, by providing access to online content directly from the TV, allows the consumer to optimise his or her options and use the Viera Plasma for more than entertainment," Panasonic Display Products Co Vice President Dennis Eppel claimed.

"Now the consumer has a large screen TV that is also the source of an endless stream of Internet information."

He attributed this innovation to Panasonic's ability to listen to its customers, many of whom wanted more sophisticated control of their technology.

"As a result, Panasonic's flagship Viera line features a Pro Setting Mode that provides the consumer with access to calibration software," he observed.

The innovative Panasonic Viera PZ850 that lets viewers search and watch videos from the popular YouTube website will be available to US consumers this spring.

Yet, impressive as Panasonic's offerings were, the winner of the 'Best of CES' prize was the only non-Asian company left in consumer electronics; the Dutch company Philips.

Philips won the coveted prize for its 42-inch Eco FlatTV, which incorporates power-saving features such as a proprietary dimming technology designed to lower the LCD panel backlight without compromising picture quality.

In addition, a built-in light sensor automatically measures the viewing room's ambient lighting and adjusts the television's backlight to enhance power efficiency.

Another LCD flat screen that Philips demonstrated, called the Aurea, reminded many viewers of the kind of design quality normally associated with Apple computers.

The Aurea replaces visible speakers with a curved rear section that pushes sound out from all sides, making them both extremely elegant to look at and very pleasant to listen to.

They resulted from research that showed women are not only more concerned with design, but they also have a great deal of influence in the home when it comes to buying things for the entire family - including flat-screen TVs.

This was also reflected in the places Philips chose to sell its products. "In Europe, for example, we sell our Aurea TVs at Lanvin stores in Paris and department stores like Harrods in the UK," Philips CEO Andrea Ragnetti explained.

Similarly elegant and almost ready to be seen in homes are screens based on new organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology, which allows for brighter pictures, better power management and displays as thin as three millimetres.

Both Sony and Samsung were showing OLED screens at CES, with the latter displaying a 31-inch model that is a massive size for the current technology.

"OLED and quadruple full-HD technologies represent an entirely new paradigm in picture resolution technology," claimed Dr Jongwoo Park, President of Digital Media Business, Samsung Electronics. "This is a level of clarity that is in some cases four times beyond current industry standards, yet retains the slim fits and light weight that have made our models preferred among consumers."

Sony was equally bullish about OLED, demonstrating a 32-inch set with wireless 1080p full HD connectivity that is a result of 10 years working on the technology.

"The launch of an OLED TV is one of the most important industry landmarks," Senior Vice President of Sony Electronics' Home Products Division Randy Waynick insisted. "Not only does the technology change the form factor of television, it delivers flawless picture quality that will soon become the standard against which all TVs are measured."

More efficient

He explained that OLED does not use back lighting, so light emissions can be controlled from zero to peak brightness while also making black images much deeper. "OLED panels can be as much as 40% more efficient as well," Mr Waynick added.

OLED screens will eventually almost certainly dominate the industry, but for the time being LCD and plasma flat panels will continue to be used to view HD media.

Latest figures confirm that HD is here to stay, with large-screen display global market information experts Pacific Media Associates reporting that 2007 unit sales for flat panel HDTVs in North America grew by 27% in December over November.

The survey also showed that consumers moved toward buying larger models. "One important development in December was that plasma models continued to lose ground to LCD," said Pacific Media Vice President Rosemary Abowd. "LCD already dominates the market below 45 inches, but in December, LCD took 50% of the larger 50-inch to 54-inch segment."

Plasma's unit share dropped to 17% in December, its lowest point in the sample's history. "We have not seen the impact of the new, larger-capacity LCD plants that will start to come online later in 2008, which should only increase LCD's competitive position in the larger sizes," Ms Abowd added.

More sober news for buyers came with the realisation that the average street price for all units sold in December declined by 1% over the average for November. "The 1080p

45-inch to 49-inch LCD segment average price fell by 10%, and was second behind 1080p 40-inch to 44-inch LCD as the most popular segment on a unit basis," Ms Abowd said. "The conclusion is that consumers took advantage of lower prices to step up to larger sizes than they bought in November."

Sports driver

More recently, Super Bowl XLII in early February 2008 was expected to drive the purchase of approximately 2.4 million HDTV units and maintain its position as the top HDTV purchase driver for the third year running.

The event was expected to generate some US$2.2bn in HDTV sales this year alone, but the true impact of sporting events on consumer electronics sales is even higher when factoring in consumer purchases of accessories such as High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables, universal remotes, surround sound audio systems and mounting brackets.

This market is a key focus for Hong Kong companies such as Coulomb Electronics Ltd, whose spokeswoman noted that consumers are preparing for new HD hardware, but many are still learning how to handle the new technology.

"One trend we expect to see soon is more wireless solutions, such as for HDMI," Rosaline Wong predicted, and noted that this trend was already occurring in some surround sound systems. "Video will eventually get there with standards such as HDMI 1.3b."

One of the biggest shocks at CES was the decision by Warner to drop the HD DVD standard and go with Blu-ray, a move later confirmed by Toshiba's decision to also abandon HD DVD recorders.

Blu-ray has clearly won the battle for the recorders that make up the bulk of the HD accessory market, which in turn means the HDTV market will take off even faster - making 2008 the year when HD finally comes of age.

TEXT BY DANYLL WILLS