Checking out the Sound & Vision Reviewer's Choice Awards is probably the quickest way there is to get a reading on the state of the home entertainment art. The 1999 awards featured the groundbreaking Rio MP3 player, Philips's first-generation TiVo hard-disk-drive recorder, and the first Super Audio CD player. The 2000 awards saw the arrival of hard-drive portables, hard-drive music servers, and DVD-Audio players, and 2001 featured the first DVD camcorder, CD/hard-drive recorder, and multichannel SACD player.
This year, we continue the tradition of highlighting innovation with our first awards to a game console, a computer system, and a hard-drive car music system. We also acknowledge refinements to cutting-edge technologies, with awards going to SonicBlue's hard-drive video recorder, Apple's hard-drive audio portable, Runco's DLP projector, Pioneer's plasma TV, and Escient's music server.
But the Reviewer's Choice awards aren't just about innovation. Every product selected for recognition, whether a traditional speaker system or the latest digital gizmo, has to be superbly executed as well. For a look at 20 special products that represent the very best in today's home-entertainment gear, turn the page.
SonicBlue ReplayTV 4000
Video Hard-Disk Recorder
(original review, April) As the set-top recorder that automatically leapfrogs commercials, the ReplayTV 4000 gives you the most precious gift of all: up to 20 minutes back in every hour. When hooked into a home network, it also lets you display family photos transferred from a computer and, if more than one unit is connected, watch a program saved on a ReplayTV in another room. Of course, all of the standard convenience features of a video hard-disk recorder-like pausing live TV, replaying a scene, and searching the program guide-are included too. The ReplayTV 4000 series has been superseded by the 4500 series, and getting started is more affordable since you can now opt for a $10 monthly service option or a $250 up-front fee for lifetime service. The entry-level ReplayTV 5040, which comes with a 40-GB hard drive, is $300. With auto ad-skipping and networked features you can't get elsewhere, ReplayTV is way out in front of the competition.
Apple G4 iMac with Widescreen Display
(full review, December) Apple's newest iMac goes amazingly far in narrowing the gap between this lower-priced line and its more expensive tower models. For $1,999 - a few hundred bucks less than its 22-inch widescreen Cinema Display monitor alone - Apple gives you a 17-inch widescreen flat-panel display connected to a dome-shaped base that contains all of the iMac's hardware except the keyboard, mouse, and speakers. Besides the hard drive and CPU, the base holds a SuperDrive DVD-R/CD-RW burner, which lets you record your own DVDs and CDs, and the video card with NVidia's GeForce4 MX graphics processor, which makes watching DVDs and playing games a pleasure. Apple's bundled software suite includes programs so easy to use that even a knucklehead will be editing movies, designing DVDs, and burning CD music mixes in no time. And Apple's powerful new OS 10.2 (a.k.a. Jaguar) operating system guarantees everything will run smoothly.
DLP Video Projector
(original review, June, "Light Years Ahead") Home theater projectors don't get much better than Runco's VX-1000c. HDTV-capable projectors based on Texas Instruments' Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology are among the most exciting video products available, and Runco's is the best I've had my hands on. At $16,995, it isn't cheap. But if you find yourself "cocooning" lately, it will spice up the hours spent watching movies. A two-piece rig, the VX-1000c consists of the projector and a separate controller (not shown) that's the system's nerve center. The controller accepts component-, composite-, and S-video inputs, scales the signal you select to the DLP chip's native 1,280 x 720-pixel resolution, and passes it to the projector via a single RGB+HV connection. It also has a VGA-style input for high-def programs from an HDTV tuner, which bypasses the scaler. But it doesn't matter whether you're watching DVDs or HDTV-the Runco delivers a bright, flawless image with satisfying blacks.
50-inch Plasma TV
(original review, October) Pioneer's first 50-inch widescreen plasma TV had a lot going for it: big screen, great picture quality, and the ability to be hung on a wall-but it cost around 20 grand. The prices of Pioneer's plasmas, however, have started to dip, and the displays now offer such user-friendly features as tuners, picture-in-picture controls, and external boxes that accept A/V inputs from your components and connect to the display via a single cable. The widescreen PDP-5030HD offers all of those features plus an expansive 50-inch display that delivers stellar image quality with both DVDs and HDTV. You won't find any of the image-quality problems that plagued past plasma sets-just a bright, crisp image and enough video adjustments to satisfy even the most compulsive videophile. Sure, the $15,500 list price could use some adjusting, but this is about as close as you can get to a perfect plasma TV set.
Pioneer Electronics www.pioneerelectronics.com, 800-746-6337
(original review, October) Very good video performance is becoming common even among low-priced DVD players. That's because what makes a player perform well with digital video signals can be easily incorporated into an integrated-circuit chip. Ensuring good audio performance with the high-resolution signals on DVD-Audio discs is considerably more difficult. Denon's top-of-the-line DVD-9000 generated the best DVD-Audio noise and distortion figures I've ever measured, and its CD audio performance ran right up to the theoretical limits of the format. Not only is its analog audio output extremely clean and accurate, but it maintains that accuracy after bass-management processing, which is both correct and complete even for DVD-Audio playback. However, if you also have the Denon AVR-5803 receiver, you can use a proprietary digital connection and send the DVD-Audio bitstream over to the receiver for processing entirely in the digital domain! All told, the Denon DVD-9000 does everything a DVD-Audio player should do, and does it extremely well. For $3,500, it ought to.
Digital Surround Receiver
(original review, July/August, "Big-League Receivers") Much of the 64-pound weight of Denon's top A/V receiver ($4,300) is devoted to the massive transformer responsible for its unusually hefty power capabilities (170 W x 7). It also has the smarts to perform all the major multichannel decoding functions, including the 6.1-channel formats from Dolby and DTS and surround synthesis via Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6. It even incorporates Dolby Headphone processing for spatially enhanced headphone listening as well as the various refinements befitting its THX Ultra2 certification. The AVR-5803 is one of the very few receivers with full bass management and speaker-distance compensation on all of its inputs, in this case including its two (!) eight-channel (!!) analog inputs. With a suitable Denon player, like the DVD-9000, you can perform this processing completely in the digital domain via a proprietary connection. The resulting sound is exceptionally clean. With extremely difficult 24-bit test signals, the AVR-5803 had some of the best noise/distortion measurements we've ever seen. It should come as no surprise that it has become our main reference receiver.
Athena Point 5
Home Theater Speaker System
(original review, July/August) The Athena Point 5 system looks modest, with little to set it apart from the crowd. However, close your eyes, and the Point 5 not only sounds much larger than its size and $800 price would suggest, but is also impressively accurate and well balanced. Open your eyes to enjoy a movie, and you completely forget that this is a compact, budget-priced system. From bomb blasts to the delicate clink of cocktail glasses, the Point 5 speakers show respect for every note and nuance of a good soundtrack. While they exhibit a slightly rising high end, they don't sound brittle or edgy. And once you turn the subwoofer down a few notches, the system conveys music with faithfulness and realism. Athena even designed a clever wall-mounting system for the satellites that doesn't block their rear ports. In terms of sound quality per dollar, the Point 5 really delivers.
Athena Technologies www.athenaspeakers.com, 416-321-1800
Digital Music Server
(original review, November) The Escient FireBall stores more than 400 hours of music in MP3 format on its 40-GB hard drive at its high-quality default data rate of 192 kilobits per second. It allows you to identify, sort, and create playlists, which the built-in CD-RW recorder lets you burn to disc or export via USB to a portable player. You can also store music from LPs or cassettes via the analog inputs. Besides displaying a ripped CD's title, track list, and artist name, the $1,999 Fireball also shows the cover art, which it downloads automatically from the Web. Best of all, the FireBall can control a CD megachanger-its 200 CDs can be sorted and manipulated just like the songs on the hard drive, and you can rip several discs in a row, saving time and effort in the setup process. The FireBall provides a roster of Internet radio stations that's just a click away, and with the HomePNA port you can link the FireBall to your network using ordinary phone lines. The Escient FireBall makes "digital convergence" an everyday reality.
VSX-49TX Digital Surround Receiver
(original review, February/March) "Flagship" A/V receivers tend to be loaded with features and new technologies, which can make them portly, complicated, and intimidating. While Pioneer's VXS-49TX is big (64 pounds!), powerful, elaborate, and expensive ($4,200), it carries its weight gracefully and delivers knockout performance. One of the first receivers stamped with THX's Ultra2 certification, it lived up to that label both in my system, where it sounded consistently outstanding, and on the test bench, where it aced every test and produced impressive all-channels power output. The VSX-49TX delivers the full spectrum of surround modes-and it provides bass management for DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD playback. As for its powerful tabletop remote, which combines programmable touchscreen buttons and hard-wired keys, it will control every aspect of your system. I heartily recommend Pioneer's flagship receiver to cost-no-object system builders.
Pioneer Electronics www.pioneerelectronics.com, 800-421-1404
Home Theater Speaker System
(original review, September) Until the Magneplanar MGMC1/MGCC2 system ($2,400) came along, if you wanted to enjoy Magnepan's flat-panel ribbon-dipole speakers, you accepted large panels that, while thin, maintained an imposing presence. The MGMC1 front L/R and surround speakers are inch-thick panels, about the size of a window shutter, that attach to the walls, the ceiling, or even the sides of a TV cabinet. Hinged mountings let you adjust speaker angles for the best sound, and when you're not listening, you simply fold them back flat. When you mate four of the panels with the elegantly curved MGCC2 center speaker, the result is phenomenal sound quality. The speakers' thin Mylar diaphragms and enclosureless design give them a transparency and swift transient response few conventional speakers can match. Add to that a dipole radiation pattern and precisely controlled radiating angles, and you'll find yourself lost in an enveloping surround sound field whether you're watching a movie or listening to music. Rarely has a speaker system anywhere near this price been so pleasing to the ears and unobtrusive to the eye.
NHT Evolution M5
Home Theater Speaker System
(original review, September) NHT's Evolution got my nod not only because of its exceptional performance, but also because of its intelligent modular design. The $3,850 system we tested is just one possible arrangement of the six models in the line, which can be assembled in around a dozen combinations to suit your tastes, your room, and-to a certain extent-your budget. That said, NHT's Evolution systems aren't cheap, their styling is understated (in a high-tech kind of way), and they're harder to set up than typical home theater speakers because they use an outboard subwoofer amplifier and crossover. But the longer I listened, the clearer it became that the extra setup effort was worthwhile. The M5 system conveys music and movie soundtracks with outstanding tonal accuracy, deep but controlled spatiality, nearly limitless dynamics, deep-bass impact, and impressively clear dialogue or vocals. You name it, and the NHT Evolution system does it-and does it extremely well.
NHT www.nhthifi.com, 800-969-2748
Universal DVD/SACD Player
(full review, December) Raise your hand for every one of these formats your player can play: CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD-RW, MP3, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, stereo SACD, and multichannel SACD. If you own a Pioneer DV-45A ($700), your hand went up at the start and stayed up. The Pioneer is as universal a player as you can get, bridging the wide gap between DVD and SACD. You can buy virtually any disc off a music store shelf and feel assured that the DV-45A will play it. In a world of mutually hostile Mac and PC computers and competing flash-memory cards, such harmony is a rare quality. Moreover, the DV-45A delivers high-quality audio and video, and it provides bass management when you play SACD or DVD-Audio discs-a feature that is still missing on most DVD players. We expect to see many more universal players in the near future, but Pioneer was the first company to deliver a solid-performing one at a reasonable price. You can put your hand down now.
Ken C. Pohlmann
(original review, February/March) While most other TV makers have rushed to allay Hollywood's copy-protection paranoia by incorporating DVI (Digital Visual Interface), a one-way digital input that doesn't permit linking components on a home network or recording, Mitsubishi's new HDTVs feature FireWire, a consumer-friendly, bidirectional digital link that does allow for digital recording and home networking. The WS-73909, which was recently updated and now sports the model number WS-73711 ($10,499), is Mitsubishi's biggest widescreen HDTV. It has a huge 73-inch (diagonal) screen, 9-inch cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) with a 64-point manual convergence adjustment, a built-in HDTV tuner-and the proprietary NetCommand 2.0 system, which lets the TV operate infrared-controlled components in the same seamless manner that it controls FireWire-connected devices. The Mitsubishi might need a few tweaks to get it looking its best, but once that's accomplished you'll be amazed how great DVDs and HDTV look on this undeniably big big-screen TV.
Kenwood CX910 Excelon Music Keg
Hard-Disk Car Music System
(original review, June) Despite the evocation of what you should never do while driving-booze it up-I'll cut Kenwood all the slack it wants for the Excelon Music Keg. This $750 system will change the way you listen to music on the road. Mount the player in your car and connect it to your Kenwood head unit. Next, tether the system's docking station to your home PC using a USB connection and load some software. Then pop a cartridge (containing a 10-GB hard-disk drive!) into the station and download a whole mess of MP3 or WMA music files. Now you're ready to slide the cartridge into your dash and hit the road. Yes, many car stereos can play MP3 files these days, and one CD-R can hold 14 hours of music at a decent-sounding 128 kilobits per second (kbps). But at that same bit rate an Excelon cartridge can hold a whopping 180 hours of music-way more than enough for a drive from coast to coast. Excelon for excellent!
Ken C. Pohlmann
Digital Surround Receiver
(original review, July/August) Given that it sells for only $300, Panasonic's SA-HE100 A/V receiver is simply a ridiculous value for anyone who wants a basic yet solid home theater setup. For that paltry sum you get an astonishingly good six-channel amplifier section that delivers an honest 70 watts each with all channels driven, two component-video inputs, and a 6.1-channel surround processor that works surprisingly well even if doesn't have the "official" Dolby Digital EX or DTS-ES stamps of approval. Sure, at these prices you get a remote control with limited capabilities, no onscreen displays, and low-tech, spring-clip terminals for all speakers save front left/right. But who really cares when such solid fundamentals come at so light a cost?
Panasonic www.panasonic.com, 800-211-7262
(original review, May) Thanks to Dolby Labs' Interactive Content Encoder (ICE), playing a sci-fi shooter game such as Halo on an Xbox hooked into a home theater is like experiencing the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan. Whipped every which way by the surround sound audio effects, you'll be ducking and tucking. But Xbox trumps the movie because the surround effects are different every time. Along with being the first gaming system to support ICE, Xbox is the first console designed to support high-definition video, though developers have yet to ship any HDTV-capable software. At $199, it's the most affordable CD ripper/jukebox you can buy as a home stereo component. Spend $30 more, and Xbox becomes a fully functional DVD player. On top of all that, Microsoft recently inaugurated online play for subscribers with broadband access using the Ethernet jack built into every console. Considering all it does, who has time for computers?
Microsoft www.xbox.com, 800-469-9269
StudioCinema Home Theater Speaker System
(original review, November) There are many excellent compact home theater speaker systems on the market, but Definitive Technology's StudioCinema suite ($2,246) is among the most seductive I've heard. It's irresistibly cozy, including an absurdly small but impressively robust subwoofer and exceptional bipolar surround speakers that are less than a foot tall. In terms of looks, the speakers share an understated elegance. More important, they sound incredibly open and clear. From the slightly relaxed treble through the smooth midrange to the warm but not excessive midbass, the six speakers work together seamlessly to keep excellent music and movie productions sounding excellent while making less good ones sound better than they should. If that's not a prescription for everyday home theater happiness, I don't know what is.
(original review, November, "Preamp Pleasures") The $3,400 Anthem AVM-20 is my kind of product-"geek heaven," as I said in the review. It offers more setup parameters than any controller I've come across, including an adjustable center-channel EQ to help compensate for the acoustic effect of big screens, a subwoofer crossover you can configure individually by channel, and a very useful phase control-to name just three. What's more, it sounds superb and includes digital-domain bass management for its multichannel analog input. The Anthem's performance with Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES soundtracks is exemplary, and its "extra" music and movie surround modes are intriguing. Maybe its complexity appeals to my inner geek, but I found the AVM-20 surprisingly easy to set up and use, and a pleasure to live with.
Anthem www.anthemav.com, 905-828-4575
(original review, April, "Instant Home Theater") Hyperbole runs rampant in product names and advertising, so when Sony named its $1,000 DAV-C900 the "Dream System," I was prepared to dispute the moniker. However, it turned out to be a dream to assemble, a dream to use, and if not a sonic dream, certainly a waking pleasure. The small, stylishly curvaceous DAV-C900 stands out in the crowded realm of minisystems. The versatile speakers can be placed on shelves or tables or snapped into the supplied floor stands with their integral wiring. The compact electronics package-only 14 x 2 3/4 x 14 5/8 inches-combines a five-disc changer that plays CDs, DVDs, and even SACDs with an amp rated at 70 W x 5. The system offers far more than just dashing looks, however. With both movies and music, the sound is balanced and full, and the slender subwoofer punches with surprising vigor. Even the attractive glow-in-the-dark remote control shows careful attention to detail. Forgive Sony's hype-the Dream System combines the utmost in style with satisfying sound at a modest price.
Sony www.sonystyle.com, 800-222-7669
Personal MP3 Player
(original review, February/March) Still the smallest, sexiest, and best-designed personal hard-disk music player you can buy, the iPod is the gadget that defines techno-lust. Its FireWire connection is so fast that a song can be transferred in the blink of an eye. Its multipurpose dial lets you turn up the volume or scroll through the thousand or more tunes you've stored on its hard drive. Its backlit 2-inch LCD is about as big as they come on MP3 players. Yet the only evidence you're running around hands free with a massive music library is the cord leading from your hip pocket to the distinctive pair of white earbud phones. Since our review, the original 5-gigabyte (GB) iPod's price has dropped to $299, and 10-GB ($399) and 20-GB ($499) models have been introduced. All are also now compatible with FireWire-equipped PCs. For me the iPod's sleek styling pales next to its inner strength. Loading it with motivating music, I set a personal best jogging through the park. When a runner's high is enabled by technology, you know you're carrying a winner. Michael Antonoff apple.com, 800-692-7753
Special Recognition: Satellite Radio
Our Reviewer's Choice Awards are reserved for outstanding home-entertainment hardware, but it would have been impossible to let the year 2002 pass into history without acknowledging the advent of the most intriguing entertainment technology since the advent of MP3: digital satellite radio. For a modest monthly subscription fee, satellite radio can deliver 100 channels to you anywhere in the lower 48 states. The sound quality is a big improvement over standard FM broadcasts, and the eclectic and adventurous programming on both rival services, XM and Sirius (reviewed in "Satellite Radio A to Z"), is cause for celebration for music fans who've been suffocating under traditional radio's Top 40/classic rock/ new country regime. At the moment, satellite radio is being pitched to the car market, but Sony and Delphi have XM receivers that can be used both in the car and at home, and Kenwood and Jensen plan to introduce Sirius home products early next year. Scores of music channels, put together by the best programmers in the business, that you can receive just about anywhere you roam-radio just doesn't get any better than that.