Year for New AV Gear
Jul 1, 2006 12:00 PM, Staff Report
InfoComm 2006 offers a large menu of AV choices.
The world's largest AV tradeshow got even bigger in June with the 2006 edition of InfoComm in Orlando, Fla. According to InfoComm International, attendance figures for this year's InfoComm exhibition hit 26,429. The show floor was also physically bigger than it was last year in Las Vegas, and almost 150 new exhibitors showed up to display their wares this time around.
Those exhibitor numbers say something significant, not just about InfoComm, but about the AV industry in general — the industry is expanding. Video is more ubiquitous than ever, populating new arenas like classrooms and corporate lobbies, and the emergence of digital signage and high-definition video spells the need for expanded AV infrastructure across the board in a wide range of applications. Information technology systems and products now routinely figure into the AV equation, or maybe it's the other way around. Venues that never before saw the need for sophisticated AV — houses of worship, K-12 schools, and so forth — are now routinely mentioned as candidates for digital signal processing and full-on HD treatments. Any way you look at it, the industry is growing, and manufacturers are responding through technological innovation: more powerful products at lower price points.
Among the new products exhibited at InfoComm, our reporters found a whole lot to like in terms of their usefulness to AV professionals. See our list of Pick Hit award winners on page 38 for our judges' take on some of the most exciting entries. In the roundup that follows, meanwhile, our intrepid reporters offer up a comprehensive look at a large sampling of the AV products that made a splash at InfoComm. Beyond what you find here, for more on the show's video products, check out Jeff Sauer's Picture This column on page 16. There, Jeff examines several large-scale projectors, videoconferencing tools, fiber technology, digital signage products, and other technologies.
AUDIO GEAR: MICS TO RACKS
Audio manufacturers sometimes feel like second-stringers at InfoComm, which has traditionally been dominated by large-scale, visually arresting video displays. This year's audio pavilion was huge, however, and strong floor traffic kept people busy showing off their latest gear. Networking and integration are still the big buzzwords at the show, so it's no surprise that more audio manufacturers are producing products that play well with others. For some, the emphasis is on one-stop shopping, while others embrace open architecture approaches that allow intermingling among many brands.
While our world grows increasingly digital, there's no denying that actual audio, in essence, remains analog and acoustic. No matter how much of the signal path goes digital, we will always have sound waves being transmitted through the air. Manufacturers of traditional transducers like microphones and loudspeakers are adjusting by optimizing their offerings for use in integrated systems, while the intervening signal chain components keep pace with increasingly powerful connectivity and functionality.
We've seen more than a decade of movement toward line arrays with increasingly sophisticated designs. The latest trend is toward compact and ultra-compact systems, suitable for the shorter throws common in installation environments. Simultaneously, we're seeing a steady growth in the availability of self-powered designs. Both trends are well targeted at installed systems, as they allow for precise system design, while reducing the cabling and labor costs associated with separate amp racks.
One of the more interesting stories in this product category is SLS Audio, with its proprietary planar ribbon transducer. The latest variation is the RLA/4, a symmetrical ribbon line array with two 6.5in. woofers. Also on display was the cosmetically attractive LS6593, a tower-style array that is 32in. tall, just 7.5in. wide, and weighs only 30lbs.
Meyer Sound was literally making a lot of noise at InfoComm with its system demonstration of the new M'elodie ultra-compact, self-powered line array, which drew considerable attention despite sitting far off the show floor in Hall F. Show attendees noted the power, fidelity, and flexibility of M'elodie.
Speaking of power, JBL has continued to leverage its status within the Harman group by offering the HiQnet-ready DrivePack module with DSP and Crown amplification in a number of VerTec and Venue Performance models. New at InfoComm were the Control 300 large-format ceiling speakers, which offer sound so good they're already moving into nightclubs, according to the company.
Even larger is another invisible speaker design, the SA2C by Sound Advance. This 21in.×14in. in-wall panel radiates sound from the panel surface, even through paint, plaster, or wallpaper. A unique, variable-thickness diaphragm is said to be the key, but the real story here is the option for total disappearance within virtually any room décor.
Community has extended its popular R series with the new R2SUB, a 400W, double 12in. subwoofer that gets down to 40Hz and offers weather resistance and protection circuitry that make it a great candidate for outdoor installations.
Best known for its amps, QSC continues to make noise in the loudspeaker world, most notably with the contracting-specific ILA installation line array. Those just looking for a bigger “boom” will want to hear the new WL218-sw, a powerful new subwoofer said to reproduce frequencies down to 31Hz.
Networking, whether between people or equipment, is always big news at InfoComm. Aviom hopes to take audio networking to the next level with its new Pro64 series. Based on new, audio-specific chips, Pro64 uses A-Net streaming to create a bidirectional audio network with significantly reduced latency and jitter.
Symnet pioneer Symetrix showed off the Zone Mix 760, the first offering from the firm's new Integrator Series. As its name implies, Zone Mix is optimized for applications like nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels, with microphone preamps, compression, AGC, matrix mixing, paging, feedback elimination, filters, and equalization all in 1RU. Ethernet connectivity makes integrator setup via PC a snap.
Lectrosonics promoted its free LecNet2 software for the DM series processors and Venue wireless system. System engineers can now use audio signals to program their Lectrosonics wireless systems, and a new online user group is now being initiated on Yahoo Groups.
Soundweb creator BSS Audio announced a software upgrade — London Architect 1.10. In addition, the London series DSP processors are now available with factory-certified modules for easy integration with Crestron and AMX control systems through that software.
At the front end of the signal chain, Shure's new flagship wireless system, the UHF-R, made its InfoComm debut. The UHF-R features powerful software control and premium performance, especially when it's paired with the firm's new dual-pattern KSM9 condenser mic. Both products are finding a home in the premium house of worship market.
The big news from AKG also came at the high end of the wireless market. The new HUB 4000 Q wireless network sets up the firm's premium WMS 4000 series wireless as the only pro-grade RF product that can seamlessly integrate into the Harman HiQnet system.
Audio-Technica has always been a friend to the installation market, as evidenced by the latest incarnation of its UniPoint miniature condenser mics, now fortified with UniGuard shielding for bulletproof protection from RF interference. A-T also announced its new AT-MX381, an 8-channel, networkable automatic mixer that is easily incorporated into Crestron installations with its RS-232 port and PC software package.
Conferencing systems in various forms have been a growing force in recent years. This year, beyerdynamic gave demonstrations of its low-profile Revoluto conference microphone station, which uses a line array of 13 hidden microphone elements to eliminate the ubiquitous gooseneck form factor, while maintaining the presenter's volume level and sound quality, regardless of movement.
New firm Revolabs is offering a secure wireless conferencing system, the Solo, with a very different form factor. The system uses little lipstick-size transmitters that clip to the lapel for unimpeded discussion. Total automation and rechargeable batteries make this 8-channel system easy to use, and the encrypted wireless signal makes the Solo an excellent candidate for corporate and government applications.
Among the other notable audio toys at the show was InfoPort software from Sennheiser. InfoPort is an online research tool that provides everything a contractor or consultant might need to ease the path to specifying Sennheiser products, including access to all documentation. The firm's AirPort system for tour groups has also been totally redesigned around the proven Evolution RF platform. It uses a rechargeable battery system for the receivers.
Tascam CD products are ubiquitous across many types of installations, so contractors will note with interest the CD-RW901 and CD-RW900, which refresh the line by adding features like MP3 playback, pitch and key control, and ID3 tags along with all popular features of its predecessors. The 901 version sports AES/EBU and XLR inputs and outputs. Both units come in rackmountable 2RU size.
Amplification is the only focus for the Swedish firm Lab.gruppen, which offers a contractor-specific line called the C series. These highly efficient 4-channel amps allow total control over input and output parameters, while offering full networking ability for large installations.
Power conditioning expert Furman Sound showcased the new IT-20 II, a 20-amp balanced isolation transformer that eliminates AC noise. A ground lift switch allows gear to be plugged into the output, isolating all three legs from the input and making downstream AC noise literally impossible. All Furman product information is now integrated into the D-Tools System Integrator design software.
The new Marantz CDR310 portable digital recorder from D&M Professional is a Flash Media-based CD-R/-RW recorder with a background record mode to catch critical events even while paused. Also of interest to installers will be the new Denon DN-V755 network AV player, a 40GB media player with embedded web interface and extensive compatible formats for simple integration of both audio and video into digital signage systems.
LIVE DIGITAL MIXING CONSOLES
Infrastructure hardware specialist Middle Atlantic Products launched a new sequencing controller at the show—the MPR-SEQ, a six-step device that turns products on and off in the correct order with a preset delay. This is part of Middle Atlantic’s Modular Power Raceway (MPR) system of outlet modules and cable raceways. Another clever idea on display was the new OCAP (Open Captivating) series of rack shelves for securing non-rackable components with high heat density, such as cable and satellite boxes, in an open design.
To help access those racks full of products, consider the new LPT Series pull-and-turn racks from Lowell Manufacturing, which incorporate a turntable that swivels and locks at 60 degrees and 90 degrees to offer easy equipment access in tight quarters.
— Jack Kontney
For those interested in digital mixing consoles, it was just as interesting to see who wasn't at InfoComm 2006 as who was. Innovason, for instance, was absent, as was Loud Technologies, which offers digital mixing products through its Mackie and EAW brands. Yamaha didn't have a booth at the show but did supply about a dozen of its M7CLs for use in the mixing workshops at the Technologies for Worship pavilion.
So who was there? Midas showed its new XL8, which probably tops the scale in both price ($300,000 plus) and flexibility (or complexity, depending on your approach). At the other end of the spectrum, coming in around $50,000, was Allen & Heath's iLive, which is as straightforward in appearance as the Midas is complex. Between those two extremes were quite a few other live consoles on display at InfoComm. A more comprehensive overview of the newest live digital mixing consoles will be available as a Technology Showcase in SVC's December issue.
The Midas XL8 live performance system is aptly named, offering powerful and flexible I/O and operational capabilities. While it's certainly imposing at first glance, Midas claims even newbies can quickly get up to speed with the control surface. The XL8 features 96 input channels and 32 aux mix buses, 16 matrix buses (FOH mode), or 48 foldback mixes (Stage Monitor mode). The standard control surface is comprised of five bays, each with three input modules with eight faders each, one mix module with 12 VCAs, one output module with dual trackballs, and a slide-out keyboard. The console has the look of an analog console, with the addition of five TFT display screens where the meter bridge would normally be. The console also provides a KVM (Keyboard Video Mouse) extender to access control of up to three external Macs or PCs.Allen & Heath's iLive provides 64 channels and 32 mixes, assignable as auxiliaries, groups, matrix, and main. The iDR-64 modular mix engine can be located on or near the stage and connected via a single Cat-5 cable with the iLive control surface located up to 300ft. away. The control surface is available in three configurations: iLive-112 with 28 faders and 112 channel strips, iLive-144 with 36 faders and 144 channel strips, and iLive 176 with 44 faders and 176 channel strips. The control surface was designed to provide an analog console feel. A comprehensive channel processing area located above the faders offers EQ and dynamics.
The Venue from Digidesign consists of the D-Show mixing console, D-Show mix engine, FOH rack, stage rack, and digital snake system. The digital snake system uses standard coax and BNC connectors for sending and receiving up to 48 signals over distances of up to 500ft. Additional snake cards can be added if more inputs from the stage are required. The system also offers an optional D-Show sidecar, which provides a 16-fader extension for the main unit.
One of the strengths of the Venue system is integration with Digidesign's popular Pro Tools for recording and playback, which puts a wealth of TDM plug-in effects at Venue engineers' disposal.
The DiGiCo D1 Live digital mixing system provides 64 mono/stereo channels (expandable up to 160). The D1 Live is available in four versions. D-1 Live 40 has 40 mic/line inputs, and the DiGiRack with mic and line I/O resides next to the console and uses copper multicore to get signals to and from the stage. The D1 Live 48DP (dual purpose) features 48 mic/line inputs as well as 16 IPCs (insertable processing channels) that allow the console to be used as an FOH or monitor console. The D1 Live 48DR (dual rack) allows for a totally digital signal path between the stage and the console. The D1 Live 56EX provides 56 inputs at the stage and incorporates two DiGiRacks and a 500ft. roll of fiber-optic cable. The faders are grouped in three banks of eight.
The recently introduced Vi6 digital live console from Soundcraft features some innovations and takes advantage of technology developed by sister company Studer. The Studer-developed Vistonics system ingeniously incorporates rotary encoders and switches right on the five touchscreens of the control surface. The control surface provides 32 faders for 64 mono inputs. The Vistonics displays also feature color-coded, context-sensitive graphics that provide a specific colored background depending on the type of function being displayed (blue for input, red for EQ, green for dynamics, and so on). Soundcraft also developed FaderGlow, which allows the fader track to glow in colors corresponding to those of the Vistonics screens. The Vi6 also benefits from being a member of the Harman group by incorporating the HiQnet networking protocol.
With pricing ranging from approximately $72,000 to $105,000, the custom-configurable Wheatstone D-12 live audio console offers 64 channels (32 faders) in a 50in. wide footprint, as well as dedicated master, group, and DCM (digitally controlled mute groups) faders. The D-12 Live is basically the D-12 television console, re-badged and reassigned to duty as a live mixing console.
VIDEO GEAR: FLAT PANELS, PROJECTORS, AND MORE
Meyer Sound makes this lineup as a result of its recent acquisition of LCS (Level Control Systems). The LCS series CueConsole is a modular digital mixing control surface for the Matrix3 audio mixing/processing engine. Four modules make up the CueConsole: the CC2-F16 Faders module, which includes 16 faders and controls for channel selection and navigation; the CC2-M16 Meters Plus module; the CC2-ED Editor module, which allows access to the controls for each channel strip; and the CC2-TP Transporter module, which indicates the active and standby cues and provides control to initiate the standby cue. The Transporter module also provides control and display for overall system operation. The modular aspect allows the physical layout of the CueConsole control surface to be configured to accommodate the specific performance and/or available space requirements of a given production.
How the user interfaces with and accesses the controls of these consoles is decidedly different in each one, whether it’s via an analog-like channel strip, a central control area, or via touchscreen. Even getting the signal from the stage to the console is approached differently—it could be multicore, coax, Cat-5/6/7, or fiber optics. One prevailing constant for almost all the consoles is the use of color as an indicator. Groups, effects, EQ and dynamics, pages, and layers are represented in different colors (some are predetermined and some are user-selected), providing the user with a graphic guide through sometimes-unfamiliar territory. All are designed to be as user-friendly as possible, as live mixing can be a pretty fast-paced experience. The user’s ultimate choice of console will depend on a combination of budget, comfort with the interface, and brand relationships.
— Mark Johnson
InfoComm is starting to catch up to NAB in terms of the presence of HD on the show floor. From flat panels and projectors to fiber transmission systems and videoconferencing systems, high-definition video is nearly everywhere.
Display mount manufacturers are the one group not completely obsessed with HD, although they, of course, are offering a plethora of products to hold those shiny new HD displays. In that category, Peerless introduced a new PLA series of articulating arms. The PLA60 and PLAV60 support screens from 37in. to 60in., up to 175lbs. The PLAV70 responds to customers' aesthetic desire for symmetry, with a dual-arm design that can bolster screens that measure up to 71in. across and weigh up to 200lbs. (The “V” in two of the models refers to a vertical adjustment feature that gives installers 1in. of breathing room if they are working with a particularly tight fit.) Peerless also introduced a cage-like projector enclosure that deters thieves, while still allowing easy access for servicing. The solid-steel PE1120 enclosure is designed for public environments and can be easily retrofitted to fit any mount.
Focusing on both security and speed of installation, Chief Manufacturing introduced its new RPA Elite series of universal and custom projector mounts at the show. It's got the same features as the previous RPA series, such as independent roll, pitch, and yaw; integrated cable management; and All-Points Security. The RPA Elite series carries a new design to allow for easier installation and service. Chief also rolled out a line of SpeedConnect accessories to the same end.
Projectors designed for fixed installations are beginning to start at XGA resolution (1024×768). SVGA (800×600) is becoming a rare breed at InfoComm. NEC was showing the line of installation LCD projectors that shipped around NAB time. The XGA-resolution NP2000 and NP1000 are akin to members of NEC's MT series, but with added integrated networking, built-in Ethernet, five optional bayonet lenses, and new lamp-saver technology. The NP1000 ($5,995) is 3500 ANSI lumens, and the NP2000 throws 4000 lumens (for $6,995).
Sharp also unveiled a projector with a built-in RJ-45 LAN connector. The XG-MB67X is a DLP projector with 2000:1 contrast ratio and brightness rated at 3000 ANSI lumens. A built-in web server allows direct Internet access. The projector will be available in August at an MSRP of $3,195. Sharp was also showing higher-brightness XGA-native projectors (these ones based on three LCD panels). The XG-C330X is rated at 3300 lumens, and the XG-C430X produces 4300 lumens.
Sharp announced general availability of its 65in. LCD flat-panel display, the PN-655U, which the company claims is the largest LCD available at the moment. It's a full 1920×1080 for true, full-resolution display of 1080i and 1080p content.
Also proving that LCD panel sizes are creeping up to plasma sizes was Clarity Visual Systems. Its m57L also has a resolution of 1920×1080. Clarity, known for its digital signage friendliness, is targeting the m57L at control rooms that need to display mission-critical data.
While other companies are fixated on size, Samsung is focused on connectivity. Its MagicNet-enabled displays that were introduced at last year's show got a system upgrade for InfoComm 2006. The 40in. and 46in. SyncMaster LCD panels each get an X in their model name — the 400PXn and the 460PXn now include an embedded Windows XP operating system, portrait or landscape orientation, and videowall support up to 4×4. That's all supported by MagicNet software, which basically enables digital signage management. The displays come with Microsoft Office players to make it easy for facility managers to load content such as PowerPoint presentations onto the display network. The panels each feature a resolution of 1366×768.
In terms of plasmas, Panasonic is the undisputed market leader. The key to that success might be continual improvement in image quality. At InfoComm, the company unveiled its ninth series of professional plasma displays. The 50in. TH-50PH9UK, the 42in. TH-42PH9UK, and the 37in. TH-37PH9UK are all high-definition, and the 42in. TH-42PS9UK screen is standard-def. All of them are thinner than their predecessors, and Panasonic is touting up to a 15 percent drop in weight from the previous generation. Contrast ratio is rated at a high 10,000:1. Each plasma in the series features three multi-function input slots concealed in the back so that users can introduce different combos of optional terminal boards, depending on their system needs.
There's a PC board called PLUG-VC251, for instance, that turns a plasma screen into a computer system. Multi-screen capability is built into the plasmas. They now support up to a 4×4 matrix and any smaller combination. Panasonic was also showing the gargantuan 103in. plasma screen that it's been carrying from show to show this year. It's simply immense, but not exactly in wide production yet.
Optoma was showing something almost as large. Its Bigvizion home theater system, measuring 100in. diagonally, is based on rear-projection technology. Its manageable depth is the hook for installers — Optoma says that its single-mirror design and short-throw lens are keys to the relatively slim 30in. depth of the system. The Bigvizion 100 features a Gennum VXP chipset that handles auto-upscaling to 1080p resolution. At the front of the system is a beaded acrylic optical screen, which Optoma claims enables a better viewing angle (160 degrees vertical/horizontal) than a lenticular screen offers.
Also notable from Optoma was its EP1690 DLP projector. Designed mainly for corporate applications, the projector is interesting in that it offers a native widescreen resolution of 1280×768. At a reasonable MSRP of $1,690, could the EP1690 signal a potential shift from the dominant 1024×768 resolution? Brightness is decent at 2500 lumens (high ambient light might be a slight problem), and contrast is rated at 2500:1.
Also exhibiting a WXGA (1280×768) projector was Mitsubishi. Like the Optoma EP1690, the WD2000U relies on DLP technology from Texas Instruments for its image. It also has 10-bit image processing to maximize image detail across a wide screen. Brightness is rated at 3000 lumens, and the projector features Mitsubishi's proprietary Color Enhancer technology to enable the customizing of color for distinctive display modes (presentation, standard, theater, and sRGB) at the press of a button.
The WXGA resolution of those projectors is now supported by Advanced Media Design's MediaPointe AV-over-IP collaboration technology. AMD introduced six new products at InfoComm to increase the versatility of its Digital Media Recorder (DMR) line. The products stream and record video (now at up to WXGA and HD resolutions) across an IP network in realtime at rates up to 30fps. Now you can record those brand-new HD videoconference sessions and distribute copies of them using MediaPointe's CopyMe technology, which uses integrated optical drive and flash drive ports.
Smart Technologies also unveiled a collection of new products at InfoComm. A longtime leader in interactive whiteboards, the company introduced the new 600i system, which includes a Unifi projector mounted to the wall close above either a Smart 680 or 660 whiteboard (77in. and 64in. respectively). The XGA projector features 3M's Vikuiti Super Close Projection technology and built-in audio. Smart also introduced a new board at the show, the 94in. 690 Smart Board, which is the first 600 series board with a 16:9 aspect ratio. On the digital signage side, Smart Technologies expanded its Actalyst line to include an overlay that fits 32in. flat panels.
Focus Enhancements showed several offerings for end-to-end content capture, production, display, and management. Of greatest interest to systems integrators, the company showcased digital signage applications for its Mantis and Firefly media players. Managing content for those players now is DART — Focus Enhancements' enterprise media network management software for digital signage that debuted at the Digital Retailing Expo in May. DART is aimed at multiple-location signage deployments in applications such as retail, banking, and advertising. On the content creation side, the company also showed its MX-4 eight-input (four composite and four S-Video) digital video mixer, which is designed for worship and education customers, among others.
Contemporary Research, meanwhile, introduced a technology called SignStream designed to support HD digital signage by integrating content and control. SignStream employs an integrated server that broadcasts HD media and display control commands over existing RF coax wiring.
Vista Systems debuted a PowerPoint-based control system for its Spyder display processor. Spyder integrates multiple sources into large widescreen windows for live presentations. Vista's new SpyderPoint control system makes it easier to set up and control Spyder-based presentations through a PowerPoint plug-in interface. The software, available as a free download, is especially promising for the church market, in which Spyder is very popular, and volunteers typically can run the system.
Control systems specialist AMX also announced an enhanced version of its new VisualArchitect design software at InfoComm. Introduced in March, VisualArchitect combines a sales vehicle, a systems design tool, a visual programming environment, an installation guide, and more in a single software application. Version 1.1 adds support for AMX Mio Modero handheld remotes, plus the ability to select the control method (IR, RF, serial) for each device at the time it is added to the system.
— Trevor Boyer
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