CES Audio Innovations Sound Sweet

From fixing the damage caused by compressing your music to creating true surround sound without wires or in headphones, audio companies showed off some rocking ideas for improving the sound quality of music and movies.

Decompressing Your Tunes

Squeezing your music down so you can fit hundreds of CDs-worth on a small portable player does some real damage to its sound quality, eliminating much of the range and depth of the music. IHome, maker of a variety of iPod docks and speaker cases, says it has found a way to undo the effects of compression automatically as your music plays. The company’s iP1 ($299, due out in May) sounded impressive in the demo I attended. In a recording of Tony Bennett singing “New York, New York,” the system brought out the sounds of the individual instruments in his backing band. In a contemporary hit by Rihanna, the iP1 pumped up the bass considerably while also brightening up the top end of the music.

Making Netbooks Sing

Netbooks were the tech sensation of the last half of 2008. But while their small size and price tag make them attractive to lots of buyers, their sound is not just tiny but tinny. Lots of manufacturers are trying to fill the gap with small, inexpensive external speakers. These speakers from Insignia, using flat panels manufactured by NXT, have impressive depth and imaging and cost just $20. When you're done with them, magnets on the edges stick the faces of the two speakers together, forming a tidy package that's easy to pack away.

Bringing Up the Rear

Lots of people have bought surround-sound speaker systems, but aren't truly surrounded by sound: They never hook up the rear speakers because they don't want wires trailing all over the living room. Roomcaster, a wireless surround-sound technology developed by Radiient Technologies, got a big boost when it was adopted by THX. The system's specs are impressive: It can transmit uncompressed, 24-bit, up-to-eight-channel digital audio at distances up to 30 feet using a wireless mesh network. The company plans to sell a basic system that consumers can use with their existing speakers for $2,000. But the real action happens when the Roomcaster technology gets integrated into speakers, DVD players, and other devices produced by other manufacturers, something that should start happening in the next year or so.

Music for Your Mobile

One of the best recent trends in Web music is services like, Pandora, and Slacker. They're like 21st Century radio--genre stations that play a variety of tunes in an area that you know and love, for either a small subscription or with a few ads. Now more of those services are showing up on cell phones. Slacker introduced a Blackberry app and should have an application for iPhone anytime now.

Is 2009 the Breakthrough Year for HD Radio?

Well, no, answers the candid Robert Struble, president and CEO of iBiquity, the company pushing the new broadcast radio format.

High quality HD broadcasts aren't hard to find: 80 percent of Americans have at least one HD radio station available to them. But only about 1 million HD radios sold last year; that's a drop in the bucket in a country with 1 billion radios overall. Struble doesn't expect to reach critical mass this year, either, but he says the HD radio business is making progress. Some radios are as cheap as $79 (this Dual XHD6425 retails for about $100) and many will integrate traffic information and driving directions to be as tempting as possible to consumers.

The Do-It-All Home Tablet

There's always a tendency in technology to try to cram the features of a handful of gadgets into one package. The latest attempt is iRiver's Wave-Home, a combination VOIP phone, music and video player, Web browser, and widget repository. It will wake you up in the morning, but won't butter your toast. iRiver expects the Wave-Home to appear at the end of the year and cost something under $400.

Colorful Headphones -- You Know, for the Ladies

When it comes to colors in our gadgets, we guys like to keep things simple: black, silver and white are acceptable (though we sometimes have suspicions about white--it seems a little...vulnerable). So you can always tell when a technology has ceased to be the sole province of geeky men. It starts to appear in a riot of colors aimed at the ladies out there. Colorful headphones were everywhere at CES, including these $100 ATH-ES3WWH headphones from Audio-Technica.

Surround Sound in a Tiny Space

Many headphones popular with gamers employ virtual surround sound. They may only have two speakers, but use audio tricks to make it sound like a tank is behind you or a missile is screaming in from above. Tritton's AX Pro headphones ($169, available now) actually use 8 different speakers for front, center, and rear channels, plus a subwoofer. The effect is pronounced: When you're ambushed in Call of Duty, you'll really feel surrounded.

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