Rich Warren: Television technology wars are back

Rich Warren: Television technology wars are back

Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) translates as international radio show, because it dates back to 1924 when radios were the main consumer electronics product. The Berlin-based show always ranked as an important exhibition, but when the Berlin Wall came down it blossomed into the largest and possibly most important electronics show on the planet. Unlike our own International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, IFA is open to the public, with a couple of dedicated trade/press days preceding the public opening the first week of September. IFA fills 30 large buildings, many of them multi-story. Try to envision all the buildings on or near the University of Illinois Quad filled with electronics and appliances. When I covered the electronics beat full time I attended three IFAs. Just trying to find a hotel room in or near Berlin during IFA proved daunting, while the show itself was overwhelming. There's a friendly competition between IFA and CES for the world's most important electronics exhibition, although in square footage CES claims a larger footprint.

Television display technologies with improved resolution and color accuracy, along with products to justify these TVs, dominated this year's IFA. Samsung introduced the first stand-alone Blu-ray 4K Ultra-High Definition (UHD) player. Fox Home Entertainment promised to provide content for the new Blu-ray 4K discs. Beyond the improved resolution of these discs, the newest generation of 4K UHD TVs will offer a wider and more accurate color spectrum, technically known as color gamut. Current TVs use an 8-bit color encoding system, the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) is a 10-bit standard. Unfortunately, you'll notice only a slight improvement with your existing 8-bit TV. It's just another way for manufacturers to entice, or perhaps coerce, you into buying a new TV.

To demonstrate this, Samsung introduced a new line of TVs compatible with its new Blu-ray 4K player. It requires the new HDMI 2.0a standard to connect the player and the TV. Thus, if you bought a new top-of-the-line 4K set a year ago, it may not work with this new player. Gotcha!

Samsung markets its premium TVs as SUHD, but the "S" lacks any specific meaning and there really is no industry standard for SUHD. It's just Samsung's way of showing off and appearing to be a step ahead of the competition.

Panasonic, which stuck with plasma technology until the bitter end, jumped into the forefront of new technology with a 65-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV. Panasonic announced that its TX-65CZ950 was the first THX-certified 4K TV and that it employed circuitry from its professional division that was fine-tuned by Hollywood professionals for the most accurate picture.

Seiki, a value-priced brand from China, extolled its use of Color IQ Quantum Dot technology to achieve this wider color gamut. While it withheld U.S. pricing, rest assured that when Seiki ships these new TVs here they will substantially undersell the competition.

Pioneer introduced a series of home theater receivers incorporating the newest DTS-X surround technology, as well as Dolby Atmos. They range in price from $1,600 to $2,500, and, of course, include Internet tuners for the likes of Pandora and Spotify. If you have to count how many surround channels these receivers incorporate, then you don't have a room large enough for them.

In less expensive realms, headphone competition grew louder with new, upgraded phones from several major manufacturers. A lesser-known company named Parrot introduced the glamorous Zik 3 noise-canceling headphones designed by famous French architect Philippe Stark. You even can connect them via USB. They charge wirelessly and one charge can last up to 18 hours. Parrot did not announce a price. Bose upgraded its SoundLink wireless phones to the Soundlink Wireless II, with improved Bluetooth and NFC for $279 styled to resemble its QuietComfort 25 phones. Bose aims for flat frequency response with its improved equalization technology designed to eliminate "manufactured boosts." There's a built-in microphone for use with smartphones.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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