In 2015, soundbars of all flavour are everywhere (and we still don’t appear to have reached the limit of the market), but 13 years ago the concept launched, and it was a bit different. Pioneer’s PDSP-1, dubbed a Digital Sound Projector, packed 254(!) micro drivers into its vertical-standing body, plus some clever DSP, to create a virtual surround sound effect from a single enclosure. It cost around £25,000 – and never really came to market – but the ball was rolling. Yamaha would be the next brand to pick it up, unleashing its YSP-1 sound projector in 2005, albeit with fewer drivers and fewer noughts on the price tag. Since then, the soundbar market has diversified to include everything from budget stereo models to premium, audiophile combis employing separate subwoofers. And we even have soundbases too. They all seek to offer quality sonics without clutter, so it’s easy to see why they’ve taken hold.
The launch of LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) projectors endowed us with an image quality suited to large screens. Sony paved the way with the fi rst 1080p PJ in 2004 using its LCoS-based SXRD tech; JVC soon followed with its D-ILA models. The two brands are still going toe-to-toe in 2015 with their high-quality video-chuckers. DLP and LCD may rule the sub £3,000 market, but LCoS is the home cinema king.
Sometimes AV and style appear to be distant relations, particularly where loudspeakers are concerned, and particularly back in the late 1990s when right angles reigned supreme. Enter KEF’s KHT-2005 package, which upon release in 2000 injected a much-needed sense of fl air into the multichannel speaker market, courtesy of the eye-catching egg-shaped cabinets. It helped, of course, that KEF’s sub/sat array was no bargain-bin package either. The HTS-2001 satellite was at the time the brand’s smallest ever speaker to employ its point-source UniQ driver technology (still a feature on KEF models all the way up its new flagship Blade Two) and served up a convincingly coherent and detailed soundfield with a hefty dollop of scale. The sub/sat market hasn’t been the same since.
Capable of breathtaking picture quality – particularly in terms of black level – and providing scope for ultra-thin (and even fl exible) screens, OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) has been championed as the pinnacle of display technology for quite some time. Only recently, though, has it begun to live up to the hype, plugging a home cinema hole left behind by the demise of plasma and adding 4K resolution into the bargain. LG is still the only marque bringing OLED TVs to market – we hope others follow.
The Dutch brand has often done things a little differently to its Far Eastern rivals – and nothing has helped it stand out from the crowd more than Ambilight. This bias lighting technology first appeared in 2004 on both its LCD and plasma ranges (max screen sizes of 42in and 50in respectively), claiming that the sympathetic lighting thrown from the sides of the bezel made watching movies and TV more immersive, in addition to reducing eyestrain. And it had a point – although some purists disagreed. It even found a home on Philips’ 21:9 ratio sets. Now that’s innovation!
Installing a multichannel speaker setup with an AV receiver or amp/processor combis can seem daunting to home cinema beginners, so the introduction of speaker calibration systems by many brands has proved very welcome. We all know the drill by now – connect the supplied setup microphone, place it at your listening position and let Audyssey’s MultEQ, Yamaha’s YPAO, Pioneer’s MCACC or whatever system you have measure your room and speakers and fine-tune the sound accordingly. And if you’ve got a speaker wired out-of-phase, It will let you know. But what if the fi nished performance doesn’t suit your tastes? If the dialogue channel sounds flabby or your rear surrounds have lost bite? Then you can still get down and dirty and experiment yourself. Automated EQ has encouraged us all to pay more attention to the science of sound – and that’s no bad thing.
Connecting your AV hardware to a home network is, these days, almost a must. Only the most stoic movie fan can make do without video-on-demand streams, app control of gear and playback of music, fi lm and image media from connected players and storage. And while in the pro-install world a wired hookup is still de rigueur due to its better stability, wireless is the way to go for most of us. So when did Wi-Fi hit our cinema rooms? That’s debatable. The original IEEE 802.11 protocol broke cover in 1997, but the tech existed before then. More to the point, Western Digital only added Wi-Fi connectivity to its media player line in 2011, and the first AV receiver to off er an integrated wireless ‘net connection was Sony’s STR-DN1030, only three years ago. So it just seems like it’s been around for yonks.
In 2002, getting by on a limited diet of analogue TV channels had ceased to be fun – if it ever was. Staunch free-to-air AV-holics were casting envious glances at their Pay-TV brethren, who were gorging themselves silly on sports and movies while they searched in vain for something interesting to watch on Channel 5. The launch of Freeview in October of that year changed it all. By switching the UK’s FTA platform to digital transmission, the lineup was at last able to grow – the likes of ITV2, Sky Sports News, UK History, BBC Three and Four provided channel hoppers with, at last, something approaching a varied choice, and Ceefax was booted in favour of the slicker BBCi (latterly BBC Red Button service). Thirteen years later, Freeview is going strong, with DTT signals used by more than
19 million UK homes.
Since it launched in 2003, the HDMI connection has earned something of a bad reputation from professionals and consumers alike (we’ve heard its acronym retooled as Highly Dodgy Multimedia Interface), not helped by its continual specifi cation alterations. However, HDMI has mostly proved up to the task of catering for our digital audio, video and data needs, and with the arrival of the Audio Return Channel (ARC) under the v1.4 specifi cation in 2009 it pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. Here, cleverly, was a cable connection that worked two ways, passing info onto your display while also sucking down audio information. Naturally, it’s found a home in soundbars and AV receivers, and streamlined all our lives. One cable to rule them all? Indeed.
3D TVs and projectors are now commonplace in home cinema setups, but the concept of glasses-free 3D hasn’t gained traction. Go to any tech show and you’ll see autostereoscopic displays drawing crowds, but never with any confirmed street date. This makes Toshiba’s ZL2 TV all the more remarkable – back in 2012 it broke out of the R and D laboratory and into shops. It’s fair to say that its 3D performance was middling at best. Getting an enjoyable experience required keeping your head pretty still and doing your best to ignore some curious image artefacts. So why does it make this list? Because the ZL2 was the first bigscreen 4K TV you could actually buy…