TVs grow, speakers shrink

Driven by technology and consumer demand, trends in home theater and entertainment have reversed themselves over the past 15 years.
Speakers, which used to be such a visible part of a home entertainment system, have shrunk and even disappeared altogether, while at the same time, television screens have grown to mammoth size, but the sets themselves can be just inches thick.
And the home computer, once thought of as a toy just dedicated to word processing and simple video game play, may end up ruling them both.
Dan Steybe, store manager at Flanner’s Audio and Video in Brookfield, said consumer demand for LCD and plasma screen TVs has grown dramatically in recent years. Both styles of sets are made in wide-screen formats, either in enhanced or high definition.
High definition television uses up to twice the number of lines displayed in a traditional digital signal, delivering superior clarity. Enhanced definition TVs deliver a better picture than traditional digital TVs, but not as high quality as HDTV.
"Two years ago, I couldn’t show you a plasma screen for under $6,000," Steybe said. "The prices keep coming down, and they continue to get better quality."
Currently, plasma screen TVs in the 42-inch size range in the enhanced definition format start around $2,500. However, most of those sets are EDTVs, Steybe said.
While LCD screen TVs average about $1,500 more than plasma screen sets of comparable sizes, Steybe said LCD sets are typically brighter and do not have burn-out problems associated with them like some plasma sets. Additionally, LCD sets are not available as enhanced definition models, but only as HD sets.
Aside from flat-panel LCD and plasma screen TVs, LCD rear projection sets are also available in HD. While they are thicker than the other two formats, they can be made in screen sizes up to 57 inches, sometimes even larger.
Unlike their TV counterparts, home stereo speakers are downswing.
While large speakers still deliver the best sound quality, Steybe said small speakers have gotten much better.
"Our products have gone from big to satellite or in-wall (speakers), more lifestyle oriented models," he said.
The smaller speakers, along with their counterparts that can be mounted inside ceilings or walls, are part of the trend of having a home entertainment system integrated into a living space.
Some clients have created dedicated rooms just to have large-screen HD televisions and their surround-sound system, Steybe said.
Those rooms can range from a traditional family room style to a miniature movie theater, with a drop-down projection screen. Speakers, as well as the televisions, can be built into walls, recessed so they appear to be part of the room, rather than objects inside it, Steybe said.
"Everyone has had that big old clunky TV," he said. "Many people want to minimize the feel of it, like with the speakers."
He estimated that 50 percent of the plasma screens Flanner’s sells are being hung on walls, with the rest put on specially designed stands.
Microsoft recently rolled out its latest entry into the home entertainment market, specially designed PCs called Media Center PCs. Microsoft is not making the PCs themselves, but instead is partnering with existing computer manufacturers such as Dell, Gateway and others to offer the computers to home users.
In addition to Web browsing, word processing and other traditional computer functions, the Media Center PCs also are designed to serve as a control center for home entertainment. Consumers will be able to access online music and movie catalogs, view digital images and control their home entertainment components such as stereo equipment, DVD players and televisions, via the computer.
Although Flanner’s is not selling the PCs now, it is an area the store is keeping its eye on, Steybe said.
"There is a percent (of the market) that is attracted to it," Steybe said. "But some people don’t want to have a computer in the living room."
However, some companies, he said, have already started to combat that sentiment. For example, Hewlett Packard has created a computer tower that looks like a traditional home entertainment component, but functions like a PC.
"People are more comfortable with stuff that looks like a component or home entertainment product," Steybe said. "I think we will see more products in that direction."
Some companies have started creating home entertainment components that have elements of the Media Center in them.
Sony’s high-end televisions have incorporated the media giant’s memory stick – its version of memory cards – so that customers who also have digital cameras and video recorders can view digital photos and videos on their televisions.
The latest foray into the field, perhaps the most integrated entry yet, is from Epson, a company that is most known for making printers and other computer components.
Epson’s Livingstation is a HD LCD projection set, either in 47 or 57 inch models, which has a data card reading capability, as well as an integrated digital photo printer and CD burner.
Steybe said Flanner’s is the first retailer in the Milwaukee area to carry the Livingstation, which was put on its showroom floor in recent weeks. He said the Epson model may be an indicator that manufacturers are ready to push consumers closer toward integrated, multi-media entertainment centers that could be PC-based.
While Flanner’s does not sell the Microsoft Media Center computer or related products now, Steybe said the company has already worked with customers who are preparing to move in that direction.
"We don’t do networks," he said. "We can pre-wire when they are creating hubs, but we leave (installation) up to the experts. But with the convergence of technologies, it’s moving in that direction."
October 29, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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