Digital Voice Assistants Dominated CEDIA 2017 Audio Advances
Bang & Olufsen’s Beosound Shape speaker array at CEDIA 2017.
The recent custom electronics showcase, CEDIA 2017 in San Diego certainly wasn’t sparse on new advancements in immersive, high-quality music technologies and products, with dozens of companies showing products, technologies and services to keep all of the golden ears delighted.
The largest trend was the addition of protocols, drivers, firmware and devices that bring voice-control interfaces to home theater and whole-home music and sound systems, via Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home digital assistant technologies prominently featured at most manufacturers’ booths.
Although many high-end companies showed new sound technologies, we winnowed down the list to a few that impressed us most.
Read more about the some of the flashier custom audio technology companies who made the biggest sounds for custom integrators after the jump:
Bang & Olufsen demonstrated that it continues to make its emphasis on aesthetics in design paramount by unveiling the Beosound Shape (pictured at top). The wall-art piece is a series of fabric-grille hexagon-shaped tiles in neutral color tones including black, gray, white and green (more color options are available on the B&O website) that hang on a wall. The design resembles a drawing by M.C. Escher.
Each hexagonal grille covers over a speaker, an amp, acoustic dampening material and the system core/receiver, that acts as the connection hub.
The system relies on Apple’s Airplay, Chromecast, Spotify Connect or Bluetooth 4.1 to stream music wirelessly. The setup creates a large high-fidelity sound while enabling the speaker array to fade into the decor of the home. A newly developed algorithm centers the sound so that no matter where the listener moves in the room, he/she hears a fixed soundstage.
B&O designed the system so that it can be scaled larger as needed. An entry Beosound Shape setup runs about $4,266 and includes eight tiles — four speakers, two acoustic dampeners, one amplifier, and one Core housing. It can be expanded up to 11 amplifier units, each supporting up to four speaker tiles, for a total of 44.
Bowers & Wilkins may be under new management, but at the recent CEDIA 2017, the company demonstrated that its emphasis remains on high-quality. B&W used the custom electronics show to introduce its new eight-model 700 Series, which will replace the popular CM Series line.
Like B&W’s 800 series, the new 700 line swaps out the use of the former signature Kevlar cone material for mid-range drivers using instead a new Continuum material, a free-floating in-chassis design and a stiff aluminum basket that is said to reduce unnatural resonance.
The tweeter now uses a less-expensive, yet better-performing Aluminum-dome tweeter coated with a carbon-vapor layer. The tweeter is mounted in a housing made from solid aluminum in all but the two smallest bookshelf models, 706 S2 ($900 each) and 707 S2 ($600 each).
In addition, the line includes three floorstanding models — 702 S2 ($2,250 each), 703 S2 ($1,750 each) and 704 S2 ($1,250 each), three stand-mount models, 705 S2 ($1,250 each) and the two book shelf speakers above, and two center channels HTM72 S2, ($800 each) and HTM71 S2 ($1,350 each).
Sound United’s Denon and Marantz brands showed two high-end AVRs equipped with Alexa Home voice-control skill integration and the HEOS wireless multiroom audio system. The company said the Alexa Home Skill will be added later this month through a firmware update, which will also be added to other HEOS-enabled receivers, wireless speakers, multiroom amps, and a new four-zone preamp. With Alexa on board, the products will enable voice control of key functions through HEOS speakers using spoken commands.
The functionality will expand further to Denon and Marantz products through a second firmware update in November that will bring multiroom capability through HEOS-equipped products. Users will be able to speak voice commands through an Amazon smart speaker to control music from supporting services over multiple networked HEOS devices.
Each of the new products will be equipped to support 4K Ultra HD high dynamic range (HDR) video will support for HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG pass-through; plus support for the leading object-oriented surround sound formats including, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro 3-D.
Marantz introduced at CEDIA 2017 its new flagship Marantz SR8012 A/V receiver supporting Amazon Alexa voice control and Denon’s HEOS multiroom wireless audio platform.
The Marantz SR8012 ($2,999) and SR7012 ($2,199) receivers also include massive power supplies and high-resolution 192kHz/32bit digital to analog converters (DACs).
The SR8012 has 11 discreet channels of amplification at 140 watts per channel, which can be configured to support up to a 7.2.4 surround system. The SR7012 outputs 125 watts per channel and can power up to a 5.2.4 speaker system.
Among the new Denon receivers on view at CEDIA were the AVR-X4400H ($1,599-suggested retail price) and the AVR-X6400H ($2,199), high-end AVRs.
Golden Ear Technology wowed curious demo seekers interested in hearing the affordable high-end speaker company’s new Invisa SPS (Signature Point Source) in-wall speakers ($1,000) handling the front left, center and front channels in a 5.2.4 3D immersive audio system.
GoldenEar developed the in-wall speakers with the goal of providing an unobtrusive speaker system with audio fidelity worthy of its brilliant Triton tower speakers.
The demo system featured 9 speakers and two SuperSub X ($1,250) subwoofers, surround speakers using a pair of Invisa MPX ($500) speakers and in-ceiling speakers comprised of four Invisa HTR 7000 ($500) angled units added for the elevation channels to the experience.
The experience was dynamic and authentic, with the new in-walls brilliantly handling midrange sections of big-band jazz pieces, sounding as if the band was with us in the room.
Onkyo and Pioneer also showed many products that will integrate voice-control operation using the Amazon Alexa connected speaker APIs. The company’s two sister brands also announced select AVRs and other devices would integrate DTS Play-Fi wireless-multiroom audio. More than 200 current and new Onkyo and Pioneer products will get the Play-Fi software update, the company said.
Both technologies allow multiple Play-Fi-enabled AVRs, soundbars and wireless speakers to be linked together to deliver music playback in multiple rooms playing streamed music and music services through the Alexa network. The Alexa APIs will let the products accept voice-commands to adjust key functions through the Amazon smart speakers.
Two Play-Fi-equipped speakers with built-in far-field Alexa Voice Service include the Onkyo Smart Speaker P3 and Pioneer Elite Smart Speaker F4, which will ship early in the fourth quarter.
Also among the new products at CEDIA 2017 were the Onkyo G3, with built-in Google Assistant voice control and music distribution via Chromecast. The company also showed its Smart Speaker VC-FLX1 Alexa speaker with an integrated home security camera, and new digital audio players (DAPs), Onkyo models DP-X1A ($549.99) and the DP-S1 ($449.99 retail). The DAPs feature built-in support for Tidal Masters mobile streaming capability using MQA technology.
In AVRs, Onkyo showed the new THX-Certified Select 9.2-channel TX-RZ920 (shipping this month at $1,599.99) network AV receiver, with 3D audio surround sound support including 5.2.4-channel DTS:X and Dolby Atmos reproduction; 135 W/Ch (8 Ohms, 1 kHz, 0.08%, 2-channels driven, FTC) power; pre-outs and processing for 7.2.4-channel playback with an additional stereo power amp; two 12 V triggers, IR in/out, RS-232 and IP control over LAN.
Other new AV receivers include the Onkyo RZ series TX-RZ3100 11.2-channel network AV receiver, the PR-RZ5100 ($2,299.99) 11.2-channel network controller, and TX-RZ620 ($799.99) 7.2-channel network receiver, plus the TX-8270 ($499.99) network stereo receiver.
Origin Acoustics made Alexa voice control integration a central point of its new product announcements, which included a new Valet amplifier designed to seamlessly integrate with an Amazon Echo Dot to create a four- or six-zone audio system, plus the ability to add more zones by daisy-chaining Valet amps. Each stereo zone includes an RJ45 connection powering an Echo Dot and allowing the return of an audio signal from the Dot to the amplifier over CAT5 cable. Users can listen to music in enhanced quality from the audio output of the Dot and also play Alexa responses over the connected speakers.
When external sources are played the Valet offers a special muting circuit to tone down the music upon speaking Alexa’s “wake word” and turns the audio up again after an action is completed. Origin Acoustics also showed a tool-less installation bracket with a special baffle to mount the Dot in a ceiling behind a grille that matches other Origin Acoustics in-ceiling speakers mounted in a room.
Yamaha used CEDIA 2017 to showcase its expanding commitment to the integration of Amazon Alexa by adding an Alexa Skill to more than 40 of the company’s MusicCast wireless multiroom products. The system will bring voice-control, hands-free capabilities to additional products in the company’s line through a firmware update in early October. At the same time, Yamaha and Amazon will add an Alexa Skill with support for MusicCast commands in Alexa-enabled devices, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Tap and Echo Show.
By Greg Tarr
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