Without a doubt, the smartphone is the cool kid in the electronics industry right now. As such, almost all the audio products rolled out at CES 2013 were eager to cozy up in the hopes that some of the coolness would rub off. While most products offered a variety of protocols to make a connection with smartphones (AirPlay, DLNA, HTC Connect), the most consistent offering was Bluetooth. The choice is obvious as this protocol is the most agnostic of the bunch and is supported by iOS, Android, and Windows Phone amongst others. Even the all-work-and-no-play Blackberry supports this option.
The most eager playmate is of course Bluetooth speakers. Formerly a niche product, these devices have now hit the mainstream. Virtually all major companies offer at least one model and some traditional audio focused firms have gone whole hog and offer several styles and formats to suit varied tastes.
JBL rolled out three new units to go with several already in the marketplace including the very robust sounding OnBeat Rumble. Zagg (of iPad case and keyboard fame) showed up with its Origin speaker which does a Transformer impersonation by being a desktop system with a detachable portable speaker module. The \’WICKED!\’ award goes to the \”Hanwell\” from Marshall. This 100-watt, 26 pound beast is styled to look like the classic Marshall guitar amp and is tagged at $800 USD at the time of this writing.
People can have particular yet varied taste when it comes to headphones so the variety and volume of models shown at CES each year continues to grow. From an innovative standpoint, Panasonic\’s prototype bone conduction headphones are cutting edge. By using bone conduction to send the sound vibrations through the skull to the inner ear, these headphones do not block any ambient noise which is perfect for runners looking to enjoy their music while jogging safely along the roadside.
Now if you are looking to put a bullet in your ear, then look no further than the fresh from Europe line of Motörheadphönes. Designed and marketed by the guys from Motörhead, the outer part of the earbuds are crafted to look like shell casings. Cool? Yes. Airport Security Friendly? Not so much.
The Bluetooth love flowed into home audio as well. Except for the entry-level models, this year\’s home theaters and soundbars all offer the ability to connect via Bluetooth; encouraging consumers to turn off the TV but keep the speakers going with the music library from their phone. Many even had the thoughtfulness to include a USB power port so the smartphone can stay juiced during those Pandora fueled house parties.
Of special distinction was the LG Home Theater (BH9430PW) which cleverly offers a Private Sound Mode which reverses the audio stream allowing people to listen to the TV on their smartphone. A handy feature for late night movies while the rest of the house sleeps.
Audio junkies might start to get a little worried, but fret not as the old school hi-fi gear was alive and well. Panasonic takes home the \’so gaudy it\’s awesome\’ prize for their Powerlive MAX shelf system. The system spits out over 2,000 watts (not a typo) and is tri-amplified with speakers rocking massive 15-inch woofers, which sound even better thanks to blue neon backlighting. Yes that was sarcasm.
Pioneer and Harmon/Kardon also displayed some of their new A/V Receivers with a host of convergence features. Pioneer is the first to offer certified compatibility with HTC Connect (HTC\’s answer to Apple\’s AirPlay) for streaming A/V signals from the latest HTC phones. Harmon/Kardon\’s new AVR 2700 and 3700 offer smartphone and web friendly features like built in internet radio, and AirPlay and DLNA compatibility. The 3700 adds in Wi-Fi connectivity (presumably for the internet radio) and both receivers can be controlled via apps available for Android and iOS.
The smartphone revolution is happening right now and audio is refusing to be left in the dust. Audio equipment makers are finally keeping up with the rapid development of smartphone based features and protocol. They are even giving their equipment the ability to get firmware updates.
Certainly, some stalwarts long for the golden age of hi-fi when big amps and speakers were the focus and core of home entertainment. Those days are long gone and the industry is acknowledging that, like it or not, their products are really accessories for the new entertainment centers in people\’s lives, the smartphone.