The TechnoFile Awards for 2009's Most Interesting Technology
By Jim Bray
One of the great things about my job is that I get to play with a wide variety of things – from cars to computers to phones, home theater and assorted gadgets. It's the greatest job in the world, except for the Top Gear guys, and I'm lucky enough to get a perspective on a lot of different, er, toys.
Since I get to pick what I play with, usually, I try to stay away from things that either don't interest me or which I think for whatever reason may not be worth my (and your) time. It usually works out well, though the occasional stinker manages to slip through.
Fortunately, most of the stuff is interesting, at least, while some is innovative and some is merely okay. That's cool; not every product has to be the proverbial better mousetrap to be worthwhile.
I spent time with quite a bit of audio and video/home theater equipment in 2009 and the products that caught my attention the most were the new 15 series components from Rotel. This shouldn't surprise anyone who reads my stuff even casually; I generally rave about Rotel equipment. There's a good reason for that: I really like what they make, have been a fan for many years, and use Rotel products regularly as my reference home theater equipment.
This year I looked at a couple of systems, a 5.1 channel home theater preamp/processor with matching 5 channel amp and, more recently, a matched pair of "classic stereo" preamplifier and amplifier. Both of the amplifiers use "Class D" technology and ICEpower modules, an innovation that means you can get plenty of power from smaller boxes that don't emit as much heat as traditional amplifiers.
Both amplifiers also offered a very healthy 250 watts per channel, the RMB-1575 into five channels and the RB-1572 into two. As with the other Rotel Class D amps I've tried, these offer excellent sound quality, and I love the "punch" you get, which comes through particularly on percussion, horns and the like. That doesn't mean the non percussion/horn stuff suffers, though; the overall sound is fantastic for the price.
The RSP-1570 is a 7.1 channel preamp/surround sound processor (to get 7.1 channels you'd need to couple it to both the RMB-1575 and RB-1572, an "eargasmic" combination!) that offers HDMI 1.3 capabilities, including switching. It also up converts video signals to a maximum of 1080p while offering nearly every other feature you'd expect on a modern piece of equipment in this league except, perhaps, self calibration. The RC-1580 "classic stereo" preamp is aimed at those who don't care about home theater (or who have a separate home theater) but who want to revel in the fine audio of their stereo music collection.
We're talking about components that cost upwards of a thousand dollars – even far upwards – so this isn't for everyone: this ain't your typical "home theater in a box" stuff. If you value great sound, however, and have the budget, your ears and your eyes will be treated.
Then there's the Bose SoundDock 10, a one piece unit (well, two if you count the remote control) that's basically an iPod speaker system. When I first saw the SoundDock 10 demonstrated it was hidden behind a curtain and the media assembled there couldn't see how big – or small – it was, yet the thing produced sound with bone rattling realism that could have been coming from a full sized honest to goodness audio system with big speakers and big amplifier power like that outlined above. And, undoubtedly not coincidentally, the Bose uses Class D power to give the SoundDock its outrageous oomph as well.
The system is very small, though a relatively heavy 19 pounds, and even though it's "just" an iPod dock/speaker system, it rocks. As of this writing I'm testing one in my home environment, where I can choose the music, the location and the sound levels. I've tried it with rock, classical, jazz, MP3 files, SIRIUS satellite radio and compact discs, and the SoundDock 10 blows me away consistently. It isn't cheap, but it's good enough to use as your main stereo if you don't have the room or inclination for something bigger. The only drawback I can think of is that the speakers are so close together you lose some stereo imaging if you aren't up close to it.
For Blu-ray players, I give the nod to Oppo's BDP-83, a $499 US unit that offers spectacular sound and video quality and which also up converts DVD's to 1080p beautifully, plays DVD-Audio discs and SACD's, and MP3 files you've either burned to disc plug into the unit via one of its USB connections. It's also networked, so you can upgrade the firmware easily or take advantage of stuff like BD Live which, while I think it's mostly a waste of time, is offered on an increasing number of Blu-ray titles. And to each his own anyway!
The BDP-83 can send audio to your preamp/processor or receiver via HDMI, optical or coaxial digital, or stereo or 7.1 analog. I prefer the multichannel analog outputs, which give a richer and fuller sound than the already-great HDMI. This is a really great player.
Speaking of Blu-rays, plenty of fine titles have been released in 2009, but I'm going to make special mention of Paramount's Star Trek, the Original Series, the first two seasons of which I've seen so far. For Trek fans, this is the ultimate treatment for the legendary series, offering not only the original episodes in their original (albeit now 1080p) livery, but the new, remastered and restored versions with new, CG-based special effects and surround sound. You can watch either version, so it isn't a case of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa – and I was surprised to find that, despite considering myself a purist who'd prefer the original version normally, I liked the new effects better: they are done very tastefully and bring new life to the old series. Same old Shatner, though!
Honorable mention goes to Eagle Rock Entertainment for the great concerts it's trickling out on Blu-ray, which include such diverse acts as The Who to Ray Charles, John Mayall, and many more. They aren't all of the same quality but when they're good they're very, very good indeed, with excellent picture and sound. Heck, on the Ray Charles and Billy Idol ones you wonder why all their equipment isn't shorting out from the sweat pouring off their bodies.
When it comes to general gadgets, I'm still very happy with the ChiliPad mattress pad, a system that heats and cools your mattress using water streaming through what's basically a plastic circulatory system. I haven't tried the cooling aspect of the ChiliPad yet since at this writing, just before the official arrival of winter, I'm hard pressed to keep the house warm enough for human habitation (where's Al Gore when you need him?). By firing it up a couple of hours before we go to bed, however, the ChiliPad takes the chill off our bed marvelously, making it very pleasant to slip into after a particularly hard day of, well, playing with toys for grownups.
For digital cameras, I was really impressed with Panasonic's DMC-TS1, a lovely little critter I got to take on an Alaska cruise. It's small enough to fit into your pocket, sophisticated enough to offer HD video recording (and just about any other feature you could expect from a mainstream camera), yet you can set it for point and shoot simplicity. Its wide angle lens was great for capturing the sights, and such features as face recognition helps it focus on the things on which you want it focused.
In the computer world, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10.1, the latest version of the company's voice recognition software, not only works with Windows Vista 64 bit (unlike an annoyingly broad cross section of the software I use), it's Windows 7-ready. I especially love its wonderful little utility that monitors whatever particular folder you tell it to and transcribes automatically any voice files you put there. It isn't perfect, but it can help make a tiresome transcription of your voice files less onerous and I use it all the time.
Actiontec's cool Mega PlugAV 200 Mbps Powerline Ethernet Kit lets you use your home's power lines to network your stuff. You plug one end into your router and a nearby wall socket, then plug the other end into another wall socket and connect the network cable to the component you want networked. I liked using it to network the abovementioned Oppo Blu-ray player so it could handle firmware updates and BD Live stuff, a task it performed well. You could also use it with a network-ready TV – and of course it'll work with computer stuff as well.
This only scratches the surface of the interesting and/or innovative technological toys out there, of course, but it's a cross section of the stuff I found the best, or the most interesting, in calendar year 2009.
I can't wait to see what's coming in 2010!
Happy New Year!
Copyright 2009 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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