Is Convergence Finally Upon Us? 
Home Theater Feature Articles Other
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Monday, 01 January 2007

AV Education on RHT

Is Convergence Finally Upon Us?

Written by Jerry Del Colliano

Convergence is the buzzword that the audio-video industry uses to describe the inevitable merger between PC-related devices and the Internet with home theater components and audio/video systems. There is no question that the process of convergence is now underway, but it has been a slow and sometimes painful journey so far. Some industry analysts think consumers are at a critical point with convergence, past any return to the ways that stereo and home theater systems have operated for decades. This is mostly good news for movie and music enthusiasts. Let’s take a look at some of the areas where convergence is underway and how it can positively affect you and your AV system right now.

Apple’s iPod – The Ultimate Act of Convergence?
There may be no more successful example of convergence than Apple Computer’s iPod. With a seamless integration of ultra-slick hardware that puts even the best Walkman to shame and connects via one plug to your Mac, with a direct connection to an online store to buy music, you have convergence defined. Consumers are falling all over themselves to get the latest, greatest and most stylized iPods. Critics and audiophile pundits warn that consumers pay a price when they are willing to sacrifice sound quality on an ACC file for mega-convenience, portability and true simplicity of use. Integration of an iPod-based system to your home theater is developing but isn’t all the way there yet. You can connect your computer or iPod to your home theater or music system via Apple’s Airport Express wireless network, which many users find extremely useful. More complex systems demand RS232 control of an iPod or computer-based music server on a PC. This is still not a reality in the home theater PC world, yet pricier servers from Escient, AMX and ReQuest do allow you to manage your music for your multi-room system, as well as access your server from remote locations like your office or a hotel room.

Advances in Desktop Audio and Video
When I speak of desktop audio and video, I am not talking about those naughty clips of unsolicited smut you get from those websites that end in a “.DK.” QuickTime and Windows Media offer dramatically more robust audio/video experiences via a disc like a DVD or downloads/streaming media from the Internet, yet most PCs are very ill-equipped to handle any level of audio playback above the fidelity of the stock car audio in a 1972 Chevy Nova. Speaker maker X-HiFi is making inroads in selling speakers ($999 per pair) that are sexy and slim enough to fit on a music enthusiast’s desk, yet have punch and bass, thanks to a nice subwoofer (that goes under your desk), and an internal digital amplifier. As the pipeline to your computer gets faster and compression gets better, you will see more and more advanced AV content coming your way, including Internet radio, connections to your servers from remote locations and much more. But putting the entire package together is a challenge.

Video displays for computers, most notably LCD, now share many of the most popular technologies found in the most technologically advanced homes. Many of today’s computer monitors can reproduce HDTV. Certainly the Internet can’t effectively deliver streaming HDTV content. However, satellite can and so can digital cable, which many people use for their computer’s high-speed Internet connection. It will only be a matter of time before you can watch Monday Night Football right on your screen at work in HD. Video cards with stellar video output are still pretty pricey by today’s PC world standards. PC audio cards have pretty impressive processing abilities today. Some cards from companies like Creative Labs can make your PC play back DVD-Audio on your DVD drive, assuming you have a 5.1 speaker system hooked up to your computer. High-end home theater in a box systems from companies like Klegg give you the AV power you need to make your PC play killer surround sound right at your desk for music, video, gaming and more. Other PC audio cards and software, starting at about $1,000, amazingly allow you to do your own recording at a level that 10 years ago would have cost nearly a million dollars. Others swear by the video processing ability of “line doublers” and other video processing devices that run on a PC. Custom installers are still weary of selling such systems rather than, say, a Faroudja for fear of lock-ups. As stable as Windows XP can be, it isn’t fool-proof enough yet to avoid those late-night service calls that dealers hate. This is where convergence shows just how far it has to go.

AV Components Becoming More Like Computers
High-end audio is based mostly around analog products that were developed many decades ago. The art of audiophilia at the time was in finding the last level of performance from a component like an analog preamp or power amp. Most of the advances were made in analog design, like isolating jitter with a more stable CD transport or choosing a better transformer for a high-performance power amp. With the advent of home theater, the need for complex digital processing and switching made the preamp into something much more like a computer. Many a high-end company that missed this point slipped into irrelevancy, waiting for big orders for their latest stereo preamp from Asian markets that simply weren’t coming. Other more forward-thinking companies started looking for sources for “OEM” electronics that they could buy, modify and honestly repackage as their own. These companies are the ones that are slowly bringing the PC to the preamp. More and more, you are seeing computer-like connections on receivers, preamps and source components. You also find high-resolution HD video switching. You’ll find Ethernet connections that allow you to integrate your AV gear on your home network, allowing you automatic software upgrades.

Home Servers, Networks and DVRs
Ten years ago, the idea of having a server at home was reserved for the CEO of a Silicon Valley technology company. Today, home servers and home networks (both wired and wireless) abound. DVRs (digital video recorders) often act as servers for your TV shows and even your music when connected via an Ethernet cable to your network. With modern DVRs, you can watch the game you recorded in your theater from the TiVo in your workout room. What’s even cooler is that, on the best DVRs, you can log into your system and program your favorite shows from your office computer. If you realize you forgot to record Monday Night Football and you are sitting at your desk, you can easily log into today’s best DVRs and get that on the “to do” list for your recorder. The increase of interactivity and connectivity of your home theater system in the past few years is the first sign of convergence, but this is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, the feature benefit of what the PC world can bring to your home theater system is far greater for most users than a groundbreaking new tone arm for your 20-year-old turntable.

Why The AV Industry Needs To Pay Even More Attention To Convergence
Slowly, the independent stereo shop is going away. The once mighty SoundEx in Philadelphia recently closed its doors after 30-plus years as a retail leader in high-end audio; they never really embraced custom installation AV until it was too late. Big retail chains like Tweeter, Ultimate Electronics, The Good Guys and Magnolia are eating up an increasing part of the market share in mid to high-end home theater. The CEDIA dealers have their niche and it is a very important one. However, the volume of sales being done in the regional and national chains is vastly larger and increasingly points toward convergence.

Industry insiders are pointing at new players like CompUSA and Best Buy as the new players in the world of consumer electronics. No two players get convergence more than these two behemoths. Best Buy ate up the upper-mid-fi chain Magnolia and now is integrating their higher-end, more custom approach right inside of Best Buy’s super stores. CompUSA might be the biggest new player in the market after buying up West Coast chain The Good Guys. Rumors persist that CompUSA isn’t done and might have Tweeter and Ultimate on its takeover list.

These potential takeovers and the increasing trend of mega-stores killing off weaker, independent audiophile stores may be powered by the rise in computer products. For example, HP makes a media center that brings many of the features of a PC to a more component style unit. Other more esoteric companies are integrating high power processing from a PC and using it for audio processing, video processing, video recording and much more. Imagine a day when Apple comes out with a home theater in a box that actually looks like it belongs in a high-profile home and prices it at $3,000 – they are already set up with nearly 200 retail stores to sell them by the millions. That reminds me – I think I need to call my stock broker.

Convergence is a truly broad topic that in the day to day workings of the audio/video industry sometimes gets glossed over. Make no mistake, convergence is absolutely upon us, despite its developmental infancy. We are no more than a few years away from complete home theater systems that connect via one cable (think HDMI) as if it were an iMac. Through a connection to the Internet and thanks to a company set-up “wizard,” any consumer will be able to program a large-scale, touch-screen remote for an entire screen by answering an onscreen prompt less confusing than an Ohio election ballot.

The idea of increased performance drives the audio/video industry and likely will do so forever. However, the plague of unreliable and poorly upgradeable components stands to benefit from convergence. The lesson of the rise of the iPod and the MP3 teaches us that convenience is an important element of our converging systems.

The audio/video industry is changing in ways never seen before. While it is important to support the companies who are leading edge in terms of ultimate performance for the dollar, thanks to convergence, you can also demand increased connectivity, better upgradeability and much, much more.

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