Tech on Deck: Speakers of the House

Even with "invisible" speakers, home audio is far from disappearing.

Feb. 1, 2008 — -- Those who believe that audio plays no role in the enjoyment of home cinema are absolutely right, that is, provided their filmed fare originated before the 1920s. However, from the earliest "talkies" to the latest surround-sound blockbusters, audio is an integral part of the theater experience.

With sophisticated home theater systems, we are now closer to replicating that experience at home than ever before. Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies can use technologies such as DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, which can offer sound quality that is identical to the studio master. However, most consumers skimp on the audio part of their home theater, buying inexpensive speaker systems or just relying on those built into their flat-panel TV.

But what good is watching a planet explode on a big flat-panel TV if it sounds like a cap gun being fired? With falling prices for flat-panel TVs, major electronics companies are devoting more attention to audio as a way to differentiate their TVs and sell matching components. According to NPD's retail tracking service, for example, Home Theater in a Box system sales declined slightly in 2007, but that's still an improvement over the 11 percent drop such products saw in 2006. And receivers, which are the basis for higher-end audio systems, saw a 5 percent gain in units after being slightly down in 2006.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, LG Electronics announced its collaboration with elite audio product engineer Mark Levinson. In addition to debuting a new home theater system with speakers that resemble giant champagne flutes, LG announced it would integrate "invisible speakers" into its TVs that had no grille or perforations.

Philips Electronics also announced that it would offer "invisible speakers" in its Aurea televisions, which offer a perimeter of lights that change hue in response to what the TV is displaying. In the design-conscious TV market, sounding good cannot come at the expense of looking good.

Samsung played up its audio initiatives with a number of Home Theater in a Box systems that complement its new "touch of color" design that put an almost imperceptible red line border around its TVs and feature a bulbous design. Samsung also rolled out systems with optional wireless rear speakers as well as a "sound bar" -- two speakers, a subwoofer and a DVD player all in one flat unit designed to be wall-mounted below a television.

But Samsung's most interesting audio adventure was the RTS-A1100 media center. With a 4.3-inch touch screen, 80 GB hard drive and built-in DVD player, this reinvention of the boombox can rip CDs, play music from cell phones via Bluetooth, and includes an iPod interface. It's due in the second half of 2008 for about $500.

With better options for integrated audio and more enticing audio systems that offer options such as wall-mounting, wireless rear speakers, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, consumers will have more opportunities and incentives to turn their high-definition TVs into a more faithful home theater experience.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at The NPD Group.