Behind The Scenes--Second-City Firsts (By Bert Whyte)

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(adapted from Audio magazine, Sept. 1985)

Setting attendance records at Consumer Electronics Shows has become commonplace, and the 19th Summer CES was no exception. By June 5, when the SCES concluded its four-day run in Chicago, 102,731 people had attended this vast showcase for the consumer electronics industry.

Record crowds notwithstanding, this SCES was a reflection of the current economic climate. Business has been on the flat side, and, to use that well-worn cliché, buyers exhibited a mood of "cautious optimism." More than a few complained that they were becoming rather overwhelmed by the vast diversity of products, and that making buying decisions was a frustrating and confusing exercise, fraught with peril.

All this is exacerbated by the introduction of new technology hard on the heels of recent breakthroughs whose products are not yet fully developed.

Every CES has a "hot" product category, and this time it was 8-mm video recorders. The 8-mm format has been a sort of stepchild for a couple of years now, and many retailers frankly hoped it would just fade away. In fact, with blank-tape manufacturers generally reluctant to heavily commit their facilities to the production of 8-mm tape, the format had indeed been on the back burner.

All this changed at the SCES when, with much fanfare, TDK, Memorex, Maxell and Sony announced 8-mm video tapes, while Sanyo, Kodak, Pioneer, Canon and Sony introduced production models of 8-mm video recorders.

Kodak and Canon, at least, had announced 8-mm camcorders (camera/ recorder combinations) last year, but these new entries are all straight portable or tabletop recorders, capable of recording off the air or from separate cameras.

Compared to the average half-inch VCR, the 8-mm video recorder is in a much smaller package. The Pioneer unit measures 16.1 inches wide by 4 inches high by 13 3/4 inches deep. The 8-mm video cassette is just slightly larger than a standard audio cassette.

The audio facilities are interesting: For monophonic sound, all 8-mm VCRs have Audio Frequency Modulated analog tracks. The big surprise is that many of the new 8-mm recorders (the Kodak, Pioneer and Sony, anyway) will also feature stereo PCM digital sound recording capability. This is only an 8 bit system, with a sampling rate of 31.5 kHz. The sampling rate limits its high end to 15 kHz (the lower end is given as 5 Hz by Pioneer and 20 Hz by Kodak and Sony, with no indication of dB variations given). Signal-to-noise ratio, which would normally be about 64 dB for an 8-bit system, is actually higher, due to companding. Here, too, the makers disagree on specs, with Pioneer saying 90 dB, Sony saying 88 dB and Kodak saying at least 80. Sony also claims wow and flutter of less than 0.005% rms.

The monophonic AFM analog track's specifications also vary according to the manufacturer. Canon's printed spec sheet cites a 70-dB S/N and frequency response of 30 Hz to 14 kHz, ±3 dB, while Pioneer claims 80 dB and response from 50 Hz to 15 kHz.

The models with PCM stereo sound can also record PCM digital stereo in place of the video tracks, so these VCRs can be used as audio-only digital recorders. Six pairs of stereo tracks are provided, so a 120-minute 8-mm video cassette affords an astonishing total of 12 hours of stereo digital recording! It is not hard to envision some future version of the 8-mm recorder adapted for automotive or broadcast use. Car-stereo aficionados could record 12 hours of their own programming using Compact Discs as super source material.

In spite of these technically interesting features and the general hoopla, the 8-mm video recorder was not greeted with universal enthusiasm at the SCES. Many grumbled that the introduction of these 8-mm units would muddy the waters in the present VCR market, generating much confusion among consumers. Many people also felt that the picture quality of the 8-mm system was a bit fuzzy and lacked the resolution to compete with standard half-inch VCRs. Undaunted, backers of the 8-mm format are busy (and having some success) in lining up prerecorded software from the Hollywood movie people. Quite obviously, there must be a good supply of movie software, or the format would be foredoomed to failure.

As with any new format, initial pricing is always high-in the case of these 8 mm recorders, the range is from $1,500 to $1,800. What are the chances of the 8-mm format succeeding in the marketplace? In spite of the backers' enthusiasm and some of the system's unique advantages, most dealers were not sanguine about its chances of replacing the standard half-inch VCR. "It would take years" and "Picture quality must be improved" were typical comments. Time will tell, but technology has a way of accelerating things.

One possible source of improvement is the tape. Existing 8-mm tapes are already metal-powder formulations, but there is talk of metal-evaporated tape, and other exotic formulations that could make 8-mm a formidable contender in the VCR sweepstakes. The only metal-evaporated tape I've seen so far, though, is Matsushita's Angrom-which is an audio microcassette.

While the 8-mm introductions caused quite a stir at the SCES, the other hot categories-other types of video, and CD in all its manifestations-kept apace.

The audio/video marriage has borne many progeny, a plethora of products to please eye and ear. This year these take the form of complete audio/video systems centered on monitor-type TV sets-usually 25-inch models-along with a VCR, cassette deck, turntable, AM/FM tuner, preamp and amplifier, equalizer, and pair of loudspeakers. In some of the more elaborate systems, there is also a CD player, and most audio and video functions are operated by a wireless remote control. Some of the more upscale A/V systems with higher powered amplifiers, larger stereo speakers and generally better components can cost as much as $5,000 and more. There is hardly a major supplier that doesn't have one or more A/V systems. Such names as Technics, Kyocera, Sansui, Sanyo, Kenwood, Pioneer and Yamaha come to mind.

One of the more touted features on many of these A/V systems is their ability to receive stereo TV broadcasts.

That certainly is nice, but it is a sad fact that although stereo TV broadcasts are now an FCC-approved service, a relatively small part of the U.S. is served by such broadcasts. The hang-up, of course, is money. (The situation reminds me a great deal of the early days of FM stereo multiplex.) It appears that in many cases, a fairly sizable investment will have to be made by a TV broadcasting station to modify its present transmitter and associated equipment in order to transmit stereo TV. Nor does there appear to be a quick resolution to the problem on the horizon. Of the networks, only NBC is showing much activity in converting their affiliate stations to broadcast stereo TV. This is said to be happening because NBC is part of RCA, which, of course, sells television receivers. With no similar spur, ABC and CBS apparently are taking a very low-key approach to stereo TV broadcasting.

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Prototype, Pioneer 8-mm video recorder

Kodak MVS-5380 8-mm video recorder

Toshiba XRV22 Compact Disc player

dbx DX3 Compact Disc player

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As you would expect, CD technology was of major concern to dealers at the SCES. The number of CD players available has reached astonishing proportions, now approaching nearly 50 models. As I have noted before, many of these CD players are "me too" models, really supplied OEM by a few manufacturers and, for the most part, sisters under different cosmetic skins.

This fact is not lost on the marketing departments in some companies. They want to offer CD players which appear to have some alternative styling or features that make them different and set them apart from the pack.

Toshiba has come up with a novel way of differentiating their XRV22 CD player. This $500 unit has a dual-disc setup: There are two CD turntables, and each can be randomly programmed for 15 selections. Thus with certain Compact Discs this would provide more than 140 minutes of music probably enough to cover the requirements for background music or dancing at a party.

The dbx DX3 CD player has gone all out to be different. In addition to all the standard CD-player features, plus digital filtering, the DX3 has a built-in compressor, partially modeled after the "Over Easy" compressor used in dbx professional equipment. While at first glance this appears to be sheer heresy, a subversion of the much-vaunted wide dynamic range of CD recordings, it would seem to have a useful purpose. It can be used to maintain equal loudness levels for background music listening. More to the point, CDs can be copied onto audio cassettes for use in a car, where the wide dynamic range of CD is compromised by the noisy mobile environment.

There is another special circuit, DAIR (Digital Audio Impact Recovery), which is a bit more controversial. One would hardly think it necessary to expand the dynamic capabilities of a CD recording, but this DAIR is supposed to add more impact to transient attacks in music-to quote dbx, "to get a real sock from brass and percussion." I doubt if this would find much use in properly recorded classical CDs, but perhaps it would help in pop music, too much of which has a dynamic range of only 25 dB or less.

The DX3's third special circuit is the Ambience Control, derived from that of the dbx Soundfield One loudspeaker.

This circuit is said to provide the out of-phase, L-minus-R information to give the illusion of a more airy, spacious quality to the sound. Use of this circuit would depend on the recording venue and individual tastes. The DX3 CD player is $599.

Next month, a cornucopia of other CD players and assorted audio bonbons from the SCES.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Sept. 1985)

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