The What Hi-Fi?/Stuff show, taking place this weekend at The Novotel in Hammersmith, West London, is a bit of a misnomer for me as its main appeal is around home cinema rather than hi-fi.
There are very few shows or even shops in London that let you see the latest offerings from manufacturers that the magazines are all currently reviewing, so it's a good chance to actually see the different products 'in the flesh' and compare them.
I went last year for the first time but came away extremely disappointed. The show was split confusingly over several floors, poorly sign-posted, with small over-crowded stands and ridiculously small demo rooms that involved very long queues if you wanted to get information from an actual person or see a demo. It seemed a bit of a rip-off, given the ticket price of over a tenner, and the need to take a day off work on Friday if you wanted to avoid the even bigger crowds over the weekend.
This year, with me being available to attend anyway, I decided to spend the £13.50 or thereabouts and go again, if only because it's a good way to get all the latest brochures. I arrived a little bit earlier this year, just before the show opened, and had a much better experience, although my complaints about the poor demo rooms and terrible layout and sign posting are the same (in fact, if anything, the signposting was worse this year and I found myself far too often having to act as unofficial ambassador for the show, directing people as to how they could see what they'd come to see and couldn't find).
I hit the Sony stand first, since with nobody other than staff around, there seemed a good chance of getting some basic questions answered. Alas the staff seemed just as clueless as your average local sales assistant. A simple question like 'What's the difference between the V, W and X models you sell in all the different sizes of your Bravia LCD TV's?' drew a blank 'I don't know. If you wait I'll find someone who knows'. Given that the Sony stand was there displaying nothing but V, W and X versions of Sony's Bravia range of LCD TV's, is it too much to expect their on-site staff to understand even the basics of the product they're selling?
Fortunately, with the stand being empty of other show attendees, the manager of the Sony area was on hand, and he did know the product range they were showing off (although a bit lost when it came to knowing prices - a bit odd when I'd have thought that was the one thing most people need to know upfront?!).
Although the Bravia range is nice, I saw nothing to convince me that LCD has surpassed (or even equalled) plasma, but have to admit that the 72" LCD that was in pride of place appeared to come pretty close. That assessment has to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt since it was displaying brightly lit scenes and no night time scenes that invariably show how poor LCD technology can be, particularly when viewed in low lighting conditions.
Regular readers will know I dislike Sony with a vengeance - they use the public as their QA department and nearly all their products seem to miraculously fail just a month outside their guarantee period, with the repair cost invariably being close to the cost of buying the product again as new, with TV's being perhaps the one exception to this general Sony rule. The other 'gouge the public' Sony rule is one of obfuscation with a 'style over technical specs substance' design that is best left to the likes of Bang &Olufsen or Apple.
I asked the cost of the 72" Bravia. "2,999" came the reply. Now, I know LCD is cheaper than plasma, and prices everywhere have come down, but even so... I was impressed. Maybe I've been too harsh on Sony. Alas, not! The salesman quickly realised his mistake. "I'm sorry, I've got a digit wrong. It's "29,999"!
Now I know there are people out there with more money than sense (name your favourite major league football player here) but even the Davd Beckham's of this world must realise that's a ridiculous price to pay for a decidedly inferior technology. A superior 65" plasma can be had for a fraction of that cost. Who on earth are the intended audience for this thing? (which apparently has won awards from What Hi-Fi already! The mind boggles!)
Next stop was Denon. I'm a big fan of theirs since I was a user of their DJ mixing decks (and helped them launch one particular model at a very posh do at a country house many years ago), and have a solid and reliable mini hi-fi system from them, but don't currently have any of their components in my home cinema system despite the constantly enthusiastic reviews from thee magazines.
Alas, my aging and monstrous Yamaha DSP-A1, at the time I bought it, their flagship model, is proving a weak link in my home cinema system. The LCD display has pretty much died which is annoying in a 'flagship' product less than 10 years old. Worse, it's suddenly taken to letting lose the most ridiculously loud pops at the most inopportune moments. But perhaps most importantly of all it doesn't have the much-desired HDMI inputs.
It looks like Denon will have some very nice possible replacements that are THX-II certified and do everything needed (the new gimmicks like 7 speaker support, zones, network connectivity, iPod native support, full HDMI 1.3 etc), if not now then next year which is the timeframe I'm looking at.
In one corner of the Denon show area were their latest CD/MP3 mixing decks, designed to look much more like traditional Technics vinyl mixing decks - the products have obviously moved on a long way since I last looked at them. I resisted the temptation to try and live the old days at 'Heaven' and have a play!
My visit to Pioneer was pretty much as expected. I've been pleased with my 'third generation' 50 inch plasma (although watching Fargo the other day it's clear that all those scare stories about plasma burn are not totally without foundation), but it lacks the essential HDMI inputs (Blu-Ray looks worse than DVD through my system because of the inability to connect through a PC-like terminal) and doesn't go above 720p high-def when HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs play at 1080p. Pioneer have their new 'eighth' generation Kuro range available now and have at last recognised the fact that people want 1080p resolution sets. After several years with my 50 inch model it's starting to feel small, so it's good to see they now have a 60 inch model (and selling for two thirds the price that my 50 inch model cost when originally purchased). Given the rave reviews (and essential multiple HDMI 1.3 inputs) I suspect that either this (or the equally well reviewed Panasonic 65 inch model) will be by next upgrade purchase. Unfortunately Panasonic weren't at the show for me to look at their model to see if it was up to the quality I deserve (giggle).
I then made the mistake of attending a Sim2 demonstration up on the second floor. They make 'the best' projectors and I'd heard nothing but praise for them and their demo so decided to make sure I attended it this year.
To say I was totally blown away is an understatement!
They ran four demo's, using HD material from a Tony Bennett Blu-Ray disc, an excerpt from a 'Planet Earth' Blu-Ray disc, an excerpt from the 'Transformers' movie on HD-DVD and finally a demo of 'Hot Fuzz' on HD-DVD, using four different models of their projector, and a variety of screens that siltently slid up and down from the ceiling.
The four-disc/four-projectors demo started with their entry level projector coming in at not far off £1,500, and ending with their latest '1080p with anamorphic lens' jobbie at £20,000! Apparently this time last year the less feature-complete 'flagship' model was being promoted at £40,000 so prices are, as with the plasma and LCD technologies, falling, to say the least!
To say these guys know their stuff and how to demo it is an understatement, and one particularly nice touch was the way they pointed out the flaws in highly detailed scenes from 'Planet Earth' which most of us would never notice (mist problems down to difficulties of encoding).
After this demonstration, I can understand why true cine-enthusiasts poo-poo the whole plasma TV approach to home movie viewing. It may be inconvenient to have to sit in the dark, but when the experience is as good as demonstrated here, you start to see why people go the projector/screen route instead. This was a 'cinema' experience that equalled the best I've had - inside or outside the home.
The 'Hot Fuzz' demo was as good as the presentation I'd had in a digitally upgraded 'state of the art' cinema in the West End. Not cheap when screens, sound-proofing and speaker set-ups are taken into account, but even so.... I need to start doing the lottery!
What Hi-Fi? 'High Definition' Demo
What Hi-Fi? ran their own 'hi-def' demo which is featured in a prominent position on the ground floor. This had ridiculously long queues and wait times last year, and it wasn't too dissimilar this year, even though overall the show was much quieter. I made the effort to see it this time though, and queued for about half an hour.
I left rather disappointed, probably because I'd been spoilt by the far superior Sim2 demo (the What Hi-Fi demo also used a Sim2 projector). The What Hi-Fi? demo was all about comparing two versions of a very long clip from the 'Transformers' movie (similar to the Sim2 clip, but longer): an 'upscaled' standard DVD with Dolby Digital sound (which is compressed) and then comparing it with the HD-DVD version which features True-HD sound. I guess it was a good demonstration of the difference in sound ('Transformers' is a VERY noisy film anyway), but a very poor one for trying to convince anybody to upgrade for the supposedly dramatic improvements in picture quality.
Despite being a 'reference' disc for HD-DVD, the film clip chosen has bad contrast, non-stop shaky camera-work and rapid cutting that makes it almost impossible to follow what's going on. Therefore, I would dare to suggest, NOT a great disc for showing the improved picture quality detail that becomes available with high definition formats. There is one 'less than a second' clip of skyscrapers from a helicopter shot in the long sequence that was used that DOES help to highlight the difference well, but the presenter didn't draw attention to that. The guy next to me (a Blu-Ray games player who was also into his movies) said he thought it was a pretty poor demo if it was meant to promote high definition. I couldn't disagree with him.
Elsewhere around the Show
Stand-wise, there were less companies than last year (Toshiba, who had a big stand last year, were missing - is HD-DVD already THAT dead in the water?!) but some interesting smaller stands, including Picture House Plasma TV Fireplaces. I have an eyesore of an old fireplace below my wall-mounted plasma, covered by some Lord of the Rings 'cloth' posters and my rack system. This company for 'between £3000 and £5000' make very nice fireplaces that incorporate motorised compartments for big plasma's so that they can be hidden behind the fire between use, offering useful shelf real estate as well. Very nice and I suspect I'll be looking at using them once I've got an estimate for removing the old fireplace and fitting a new one.
I managed to pick up a cheque for £11.98 for my old mobile phone - one of the advertised features of the show is that you can take your old mobiles in and get cash. - I hadn't realised they wouldn't take the power supply and case as well so had to bring those back home. For me then the ticket price was almost covered by that, and the first 500 entrants got a free pack of triple A Mallory batteries, which I laid claim to up on the second floor. All-in-all it was worth the cost of attending, but I question how long the show will survive. The layout is appalling, and too many of the key players were missing. All the problems I raised about the show over on The AV Forums, last year are still there, even though some of these are easily fixable. A more central London venue would attract far more 'passing trade' and that in turn would attract more of the vendors. The decreased attendance this year compared with last (at least when comparing the two Fridays) must mean this show is running on limited time unless the organisers get their act together. But if they DO have the event next year I'd probably attend, if only to take advantage of some of the offers available at the show (between 5% up to 20% off from some of the 'third party' companies that were participating).
The show runs until tomorrow (Sunday) so if you're reading this the weekend of 3rd November you still have a chance to go. You can find all the details at the official show site (which is pretty dreadful!).
Yeah, but where's Smile of the Day and the new Shiny Disc Reveiw?
I'm running late for a meeting in central London with some friends, so no Smile of the Day or new DVD review yet. There will be an update to My DVD Review Blog when I come back so check that later today for a review of The Good German, which goes on sale on Monday.