What CES showed us about the future of TV and Home Cinema
The online presentations have wrapped up, the virtual booths are packed up, and the bombardment of ‘have you seen our amazing new product’ emails have just about dried up. Yes: The first and hopefully only lockdown CES is over. Now that we’ve had a couple of days to digest it all, what can we AV fans make of all the announcements over the past week? What were the key trends, the big surprises and the crushing disappointments?
Say hello to Mini-LED
The biggest new TV trend without a doubt was the sudden rise of Mini-LED technology. This major refinement of LCD TVs sees screens illuminated by much smaller and thus much more numerous locally controlled light sources than regular TVs, massively increasing the image’s potential contrast and lighting uniformity.
Mini-LED’s emergence at CES 2021 didn’t come completely out of nowhere; TCL has been selling mini-LED TVs since 2019. But the revelation that Samsung and LG would both be joining the mini-LED party this year in a big way instantly catapulted the technology from niche to mainstream.
Samsung revealed that it would be using mini-LED technology to deliver potentially thousands of separate dimming zones across all of its premium 8K and 4K TV ranges for 2021 - a startlingly whole-hearted endorsement of the technology by the world’s biggest-selling TV brand. The sheer extent of Samsung’s mini-LED adoption also joins the experience of TCL’s mini-LED TVs in raising hopes that this is one relatively new TV technology that doesn’t need to be horrendously expensive.
Certainly mini-LED is going to be creeping down to the upper mid-range part of Samsung’s 2021 range. As for LG’s mini-LED sets, they’re being positioned at the top of the brand’s LCD range (pushing LG’s previous flagship Nanocell technology down to mid-range level), but below its new OLED range. So with LG’s OLED range dipping close to $1800 at times in 2020, there isn’t any room, really, for the brand’s new mini-LED sets to push the pricing boat out.
TCL, for its part, announced a second innovation on the basic mini-LED theme. Called, rather clumsily, OD Zero Mini-LED, and found on a new XL tier of TVs, TCL’s new mini-LED variation completely removes the usual optical gap between the technology’s backlight layer and LCD diffuser. The result is a new ultra-thin, almost OLED-like design without, TCL claims, reducing picture performance.
TCL’s commercial director, Aaron Dew, wrote a public blog during CES in which he cheekily congratulated other brands for finally getting into mini-LED, and described rival OLED technology as something that “hasn’t notably changed since it was first used in TVs in the early 2010s, and still only accounts for less than three per cent of global TV sales.” It seems fair to say that TCL won’t be adding any OLED screens to its range any time soon, and is firmly locked onto mini-LED for its future.
Potentially impressive as mini-LED looks, though, it still can’t match OLED’s trick of having every single pixel in the picture produce its own light. The only LED-based solution that can do that is microLED - but CES brought us very mixed news on that front.
MicroLED - Not coming to a living room near you soon
MicroLED has been winning adoring looks from home cinema fans at technology show after technology show for at least four years now. In fact, Samsung has pretty much ‘launched’ microLED screens for four CESs in a row.
In reality though, while Samsung’s series of monster-sized ‘The Wall’ microLED screens have technically gone on sale, they’ve cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have had to be constructed from smaller blocks. So it’s fair to say they haven’t exactly gone mainstream.
Hope springs eternal though, so despite microLED’s painfully slow march towards our living rooms, many had hoped that maybe microLED’s time would finally come at the 2021 CES.
The early signs were actually promising, as Samsung announced by far its most consumer-friendly microLED screen yet. A 110-inch screen (relatively small/living room-friendly by microLED standards) with a 4K-resolution that ships pre-assembled and even carries a built-in 5.1-channel audio system. Despite its consumer-friendly overtures though, this model is still claimed to deliver all the usual microLED benefits of pixel for pixel lighting, high peak brightness, a huge colour range, freedom from OLED’s potential screen burn issues, and hardly any performance deterioration over its estimated 100,000 hours of working life.
Samsung also talked at CES of two smaller microLED models, measuring 99 and 88 inches, both allegedly arriving later in the year, and both apparently still delivering a native 4K resolution. Since so many Samsung microLED promises have come and gone over recent years though, we’ll wait until we see these two smaller models in the flesh before we entirely believe in them.
But surely it’s at least time to get the credit card out for the 110-inch model right? Sure. So long as that credit card has a limit of US$156,000. Ouch.
Sony had some big microLED news to announce at CES, too. This sees two new series of its own Crystal LED variant of microLED screens launching in 2021: a B Series that focuses on brightness (it can hit 1,800cd/m2) and suppressing reflections, and a C Series that focuses on contrast and black level (800cd/m2 brightness, 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio).
Both of these new series are designed to be significantly cheaper than their CLED predecessors - especially if you go for the 1.5micrometer pixel pitch models rather than the denser 1.2micrometer pixel pitch models. Also, while both of Sony’s new microLED series use modular screen designs that have to be constructed on-site, Sony has designed them to be built without specialist equipment or knowledge, and be maintained via front rather than rear access. The new screens even use a version of the X1 video processor Sony uses in its Bravia TVs.
Again though, momentary dreams of having a Sony microLED screen at home take a pretty massive hit when you look at who Sony is aiming its new CLED series at. Film production studios, corporate boardrooms/lobbies, high-end industrial design companies… In other words, even these ‘cheaper’ CLED screens are still going to be far beyond the pockets of all but the most super-rich of domestic users.
Sony is also seemingly struggling to scale its CLED screens down in size terms. Even with the smaller pitch screens, Sony can only manage a full HD resolution in a 110-inch screen. For 4K you’re looking at having to accommodate a massive 220-inch screen.
While I guess it’s good to see microLED edging even marginally closer to living room potential, in truth its painfully slow rate of progress, together with everything I’ve heard so far about how hard it is to manufacture microLED at scale, makes microLED feel more like a CES bust than a CES hero.
So how has the show been for the only other self-emissive technology game in town right now?…
The pop shot taken at OLED TVs by TCL’s Aaron Dew during CES arguably ended up looking a bit ill-timed given that this year’s virtual show actually saw potentially the biggest true hardware advance in OLED technology we’ve seen for years.
Both LG and Sony announced new ranges - the G1s in LG’s case, the A90Js in Sony’s case - that use new panel hardware to boost their brightness by around a quarter from anything either brand has mustered from OLED before. This is a big deal given the importance of brightness to high dynamic range video, and how big a deal the LCD-favouring brands like to make about brightness.
Panasonic has offered a similar proprietary technology on its flagship OLED models since 2019, and this will continue into 2021 with its flagship JZ2000 range.
We don’t have pricing information on any of these new high-brightness OLEDs yet. Experience from Panasonic’s history with this sort of technology though, suggests that the premium you’ll need to pay will be pretty considerable.
Some have raised concerns that these brighter OLEDs will be more susceptible to screen burn. However, since all of the panel hardware adjustments involved with the high-brightness models use heat dissipation technology, then in theory at least, they might actually be less susceptible to burn-in than regular OLEDs.
While ‘regular’ OLED screens enjoyed a nice bit of hardware innovation to go with their usual annual processing refreshes, one notable absentee from the CES 2021 OLED action was QD-OLED (Quantum Dot OLED).
This Samsung technology, which mixes OLED’s self-emissive qualities with the brightness and high colour volumes of Quantum Dots, has long been rumoured to be on the verge of breaking out of the business displays business and into your living room. Industry rumours suggest that Samsung continues to have concerns about QD-OLED’s brightness and susceptibility to screen burn - rumours which seem to be backed up by QD-OLED’s no-show in a year when a few optimistic pundits were hoping actual QD OLED TVs would be going on sale.
Talking of technology that was conspicuous by its absence…
4K Blu-ray players
There wasn’t so much as a hint of any new 4K Blu-ray technology announced by any brand at virtual CES 2021. Oppo and Samsung have long since departed from this part of the AV hardware business. Still, there was nothing new either from Panasonic, Sony, or Pioneer - or any new blood looking to make a name for itself in the increasingly tough world of physical movie media.
This is a potentially ominous sign for us fans of 4K Blu-ray discs. That said, it’s worth remembering that the Xbox Series X and PS5 have just put many millions more 4K Blu-ray players into people’s homes across the globe, so there’s plenty of potential life left in the format yet if even a fairly small per cent of those console buyers wake up to what their games machines can also do for their enjoyment of films. Especially in the PS5’s case, which performs at least as well as a decent standalone 4K BD deck.
The bigger question for 4K Blu-ray going forward is whether all of the AV brands on the market will keep selling their current players, or eventually start to wind their ranges down.
This was another relatively quiet area for CES 2021. The only big brands making announcements were Pioneer and Onkyo, which both revealed their 2021 AV receiver ranges.
We have been intending to bring you a story on these, but before we do we’ve been trying to find out if the new supposedly 4K/120Hz-capable models are susceptible to the same HDMI bug with the Xbox Series X console that affects the latest 2021 AVRs from Marantz, Denon and Yamaha. So far, the only thing we’ve heard back was a contradictory statement that made things more rather than less unclear. Keep an eye out for more on these receivers soon.
Unlike the 4K Blu-ray situation though, I don’t think the fairly limited number of AVR announcements coming out of CES bodes ill for the sector’s future. As I just noted, Denon, Yamaha and Marantz all announced substantial new ranges before CES - the main feature of which, as in the Pioneer and Onkyo AVRs’ case, was support for the latest gaming features detailed in the next section.
It was perhaps a little strange not to see Sony announcing anything new on the AVR front at CES, but Sony quite often holds a news nugget or two back a week or two for the weeks following CES, so let’s not give up on new Sony AVRs just yet.
The irresistible rise of gaming
Pretty much every TV brand except for LG and, at a stretch, Samsung failed pretty badly to cater for the new generation of games consoles and PCs with their 2020 TV ranges. They all, thankfully, seem to be joining the AVR manufactures in falling over themselves to put this right in 2021, though.
LG is set to continue to offer comprehensive support on its OLED TVs for all the important next-gen gaming features: namely 4K resolution at 120Hz; variable refresh rates; and automatic low latency mode switching (where the TV can automatically toggle between its fast response Game picture presets and a regular video preset depending on the type of content it detects your console is outputting).
The vast majority of Sony’s TV range for 2021 will support all these features rather than just one series as happened in 2020, and Samsung will expand the number of HDMIs that support these gaming features for various models in its new range.
Even Panasonic is finally getting in on the gaming act, with its new JZ2000 flagship OLEDs supporting variable refresh rates and refresh rates up to 120Hz.
It became clear at CES, too, that we’re now in an ongoing race among TV makers to keep making input lag (the time a screen takes to render images) faster, and to keep developing new gaming features, such as picture and sound setting tweaks designed to make gaming action more immersive.
A mixed bag for 8K
Having been the darling of a couple of previous CESs, 8K had more of a middling CES 2021.
Its biggest supporter to date, Samsung, continued to innovate around its 8K screens with new thinner designs and the use across the board of mini-LED technology. It didn’t go quite as far as some had expected though, in replacing relatively mid-range 4K sets with 8K.
LG revealed that there would be 8K models using its new QNED Mini LED TV technology, but didn’t provide any further details. And while LG will be introducing new Z1 8K OLED TVs, I do not hear anything to suggest that these are going to be substantially cheaper than the excessively expensive 8K models LG has released before.
Sony has a new 8K LCD range incoming, but as with Samsung, nothing it announced at CES suggested that it would be expanding its 8K offering for 2021 from the limited number of models we saw in 2020. It will be interesting, though, to see what Sony’s new Bravia XR processor might be able to do when it comes to upscaling 4K to 8K.
There were some more moves into 8K by relatively small (in the US and Europe) Chinese brands, but not in truth much more than we saw in 2020.
Probably the most significant single announcement from an 8K perspective was TCL’s revelation that it was going to be introducing a whole new range of 8K TVs as an additional wing to its hugely successful ‘6-series’ Roku TV range. This range is renowned for its combination of good picture quality and aggressive pricing, so the hope has to be that these TCL sets will be cheap enough to make 8K mainstream in a way it’s not been before.
As awareness of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X sound formats grows, so does the demand for straightforward, space-saving audio solutions capable of unlocking both formats’ ultra-immersive thrills. CES’s announcements confirmed that pretty much any soundbar worthy of the name - including budget models - is now pretty much expected to cover either Dolby Atmos or DTS:X - or, ideally, both.
Some CES 2021 soundbar announcements stood out. Denon’s new Sound Bar 550, for instance, promises both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support from a six-driver array, as well as sound that’s tuned for both music and movies. It also carries Denon’s HEOS platform for better streaming of network and streaming files and easy integration into a wider Denon Home wireless speaker range.
In fact, in another move that’s starting to grow in popularity, you can combine the Home 550 with other Denon wireless speakers to create a full 5.1 system of actual physical speakers, rather than relying on virtual sound processing to create an Atmos or DTS:X soundstage.
The Sound Bar 550 is anticipated to sell for £599/649 Euros/US$599 in mid-February, and $999 in Australia from end-April.
Samsung unveiled probably the all-round most powerful and satisfying premium soundbar solution right now, at least where movie playback is concerned. The HW-Q950A will become the first soundbar system to support a genuine (rather than virtual) channel count of 11.1.4. Experience suggests this will set you back at least £1,499 in the UK - but that it may well sound surprisingly close to a ‘full sized’ separates system.
Chinese brand Cowin showed a surprising level of innovation at the budget end of the soundbar market, meanwhile, with a £60/$80/AU$100 speaker that can be literally split in two if you wish, so that you can get a wider stereo effect out of it.
The constant drive to get bigger sound from ever smaller boxes probably reached its peak at CES 2021 in the shape of LG’s QP5 Eclair. This manages to squeeze five real speakers, including two actual up-firing drivers, into a box that’s just 11.7 by 2.3 inches in size, with support for both the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats.
Finally, Panasonic cunningly combined soundbars with gaming in the shape of its Soundslayer. This soundbar is small enough to fit under a gaming monitor or diminutive TV. It cleverly carries sound modes designed in conjunction with gamers to deliver either an enhanced RPG or a more focused and impactful first-person shooter experience.
Here’s hoping for an in-person CES 2022
While virtual CES has worked well enough as an onscreen shop window for all the lovely AV wares and trends we can look forward to in the coming 12 months, it has also rammed home that there’s just no replacement for a physical, in-person experience when it comes to confidently being able to pick the hype from the genuine hopes.
So however much I might find myself moaning about having to travel to Las Vegas for a week of chaos straight after Christmas every year, I seriously hope that COVID finally leaves us alone enough in 2021 to enable a ‘true’ CES to return in all its exhausting glory in 2022.
I’ve spent the past 25 years writing about the world of home entertainment technology. In that time I’m fairly confident that I’ve reviewed more TVs and projectors than any other individual on the planet, as well as experiencing first-hand the rise and fall of all manner of great and not so great home entertainment technologies.