Shredding and Sitting at CES 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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So this is the future: After breaking a leg using a high-tech snowboarding parka to switch between an iPod and cell phone in mid-air, gear geeks can recover in a lounge chair equipped with full-blown Surround Sound circuitry.


Actually there is a price, probably a rather steep one, for those hoping to indulge in the latest technology unveiled this week at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. An enormous range of digital music products and predictions are part of the four-day show that begins Thursday, Jan. 6, although ultimately there doesn't appear to be any revolutionary category killers or pioneers like Apple's iPod.

The iPod, in fact, is one of the big items at this year's show as vendors prepare to show off all kinds of add-on items ranging from video players to "media centers" costing hundreds of dollars that allow playback through home stereo systems. A personal quest is to find out why the latter keep getting touted when a $5 stereo cord will do the trick; ditto for auto hookups (and why haven't manufacturers figured out the value of adding a line-in plug that couldn't possibly cost more than a couple of dollars).

The future of online music promises to get airtime as organizations like MP3.com and the Home Recording Rights Coalition discuss issues such as commercial availability and legal issues for consumers wanting to legally copy music to various devices. Even a handful of jazz-specific tidbits may be coming, as the "celebrity" list includes Al Schmitt, the producer of Grammy-winning work by Norah Jones and Frank Sinatra, and performances by musicians including Al Jarreau, Ike Turner and Les Paul.

Among the more interesting practical products in the endless stack of announcements are portable satellite radio players allowing recording for later use, a boon for those who've tried capturing less- than-great audio from Internet radio streams. Of course, those with cassette recorders living anywhere near a decent public radio jazz station have long been able to do this for far less money.

Then there's the "gee-whiz" items like that wireless parka.

Motorola and Burton Snowboards will be offering a lineup of jackets, helmets and beanies equipped with wireless Bluetooth connections - complete with microphones, speakers and remote controls - allowing snow freaks to "switch between their iPod playlist and incoming calls in mid-air," according to a press release from the companies. Not mentioned is whether they're fashionable enough to impress others paying $75 for lift tickets in Aspen or if they'll keep shredders warm while laying in the snow waiting for the ski patrol.

Of course, few people will care if you look like hell at home in a lounge chair. At least two companies are planning to introduce multimedia-oriented loungers offering 5:1 speaker environments and the like. Inquiring minds have to wait for the actual unveiling, however, before learning whether they're actually a comfortable for any length of time.

Much of the hype seems to be copying or making incremental changes to existing technology. One of a million examples is Shure, whose earbud headphones are a big iPod hit. Among them are an E3C model selling for $180 and a vastly superior E5C selling for (yikes) $500. So their big announcement in this field? Yup - an E4C selling for $299.

Then again, these are just the preliminaries. Literally miles of vendors are setting up for Thursday's opening and the expected 120,000 participants. At that point a vastly broader range of products (especially from smaller companies), demonstrations and predictions will be coming. And maybe organizers will have the wireless connections working by then - it's rather amusing that in the techno center of the world the most reliable way to get connected is down the road at Starbucks.

Mark Sabbatini is attending the 2005 Winter CES and filing reports about the latest in digital music and other developments of potential interest to AAJ readers as worthwhile ones occur.

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