CES Pre-Show Events Offer Glimpse of Near Audio Future

Your dauntless reporters---Tom Norton, Steven Stone, Michael Fremer, Bob Deutsch, Larry Greenhill, Jon Iverson, and Barry Willis---have shown up on schedule for Philips Electronics' 1999 kickoff press conference at the Desert Inn's Grand Ballroom II, attended by a hundred or so other journalists.

Philips always offers the opportunity for schmooze in abundance, in addition to some delicious munchies and non-alcoholic daiquiris, and plenty of new and improved hardware---the first of which to catch our collective eye was a fine pair of CDR-765 dual-bay CD-dubbing machines, their drive trays open with a blank disc in one side and a commercial CD in the other.

"CD-R!" proclaimed a salesman to the group of gawking Stereofools.

Us: "Can these machines use computer CD-Rs?"

Enthusiastic Salesguy: "Audio CD only! But blank media is coming down in price---they'll soon be four bucks."

Us, a sneer in every syllable: "Yeah? Computer discs are a buck apiece."

Salesguy, patiently: "This machine makes excellent copies . . ."

Us: "With SCMS code and all."

Salesguy, near end of rope: " Indistinguishable from the original . . ."

Us: "I bet the RIAA loves that."

Salesguy, short fuse: "You don't have to buy it!"

With that, he simply walked away. Some conversations are doomed from the start.

Philips has also announced that a Super Audio CD player will be available later this year, and its new batch of DVD players will output 24-bit/96kHz audio, once copyright issues are resolved. (One of the sticking points is that while SACD offers a CD-compatible layer of the same recording, the record industry feels that this should be treated legally as a separate entity, thus saddling SACD with a double hit on mechanical, artist, and songwriting royalties.)

Toshiba is making similar noises, promising that its new players offer "24/96 capability" while admitting that the actual resolution is limited to 20-bit/48kHz---at least for now, also until "copyright issues are resolved."

Toshiba's upper-tier DVD machines---the SD-5109, SD-4109, and SD-3109---feature audiophile-grade construction and parts, including Burr-Brown DACs "for natural timbre" and "true 20-bit" dynamic range. The top-of-the-line SD9000, which will retail for $1099, boasts of an ultra-low signal/noise ratio and a dynamic range in excess of 112dB.

Next, Sony presented the ultimate dog-and-pony show, with platitudes about making our lives wonderful once they achieve world domination. MiniDisc and SACD were hammered again and again, but most interesting was a list of SACD supporters, including many high-end audio manufacturers, such as Krell and Wadia. We'll have more on this as the week progresses.