Tomorrow's electronics are coming in loud (or quiet) and clear Plugged into the FUTURE

January 12, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Las Vegas -- Walking onto the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a lot like stepping into the future.

It isn't just the dizzying swirl of new technology that does it, though clearly that's a part of the illusion. CES, after all, is where the electronics industry struts its stuff, hawking the latest in hi-tech gadgetry to gawking hordes of dealers and distributors. As such, it's easy to get swept away by all the talk of CD-ROMs, interactive software, data ports and the like.

No, what makes CES seem most like the future is that it's so bewilderingly vast, boasting hundreds of booths, thousands of products and more information than any one person could possibly absorb. With over a million square feet of exhibit space, it takes days simply to walk through the thing.

Not to worry. Scattered amid all the noise and clutter are concepts that really count and gizmos that really work. What follows, then, is a quick glance at some of the more interesting gear on display at CES -- products that promise not only to make life easier and more enjoyable, but bring the future just a little bit closer.

Great gadgets

As any salesman will attest, the best inventions are those that fill a need the customer never knew he or she had. Something, in other words, like the Koss Quiet Zone 1000.

It looks like a standard set of stereo headphones permanently plugged into a cassette-sized box, and what it does is make the world seem a quieter place. Slip the headphones on, flip a switch, and the Quiet Zone screens out all manner of low-frequency noise -- the roar of jet engines, the growl of lawn mowers and so on. But it doesn't interfere with other sounds, so if you've got a personal stereo, you'll be able to hear clearly without having to hike the volume. Or if you want to chat with your seatmate on a airline flight, you'll hear everything except that annoying rumble.

It works by analyzing incoming sound, and generating "anti-waves" that cancel out all the low-frequency noise. And it takes only a few seconds to hear how effective the approach is. Koss expects to have the Quiet Zone 1000 on the market by March, with a list price between $200 and $300.

One ingenious idea you probably won't see advertised on TV is the Commercial Brake. Basically a black box wired between the TV and VCR, it's designed to ensure you'll never see another commercial again -- at least not when you tape your shows, anyway.

What it does is watch for certain patterns in the TV transmission -- black frames, low sound levels and such -- that it recognizes as typical of commercial blocks, and then "marks" them on the tape. Then, when it's playback time, Commercial Brake fast forwards past the ads, giving the viewer a pleasant blue screen instead of the usual blur of pitchmen and products.

There's no programming involved -- everything is automatic -- and it should work with any TV or VCR. Commercial Brake will cost $199, and the manufacturer expects it to be on the market in April.

Another breakthrough on the TV front is StarSight. A couch-potato's dream, it offers a Grid Guide that puts everything in the TV book right on your screen; a recording system that lets you program your VCR by pushing a single button; a grazing function that not only tells what's on as you flip around but lets you know how much time is left in the show; and theme categories that automatically index shows by type or topic.

StarSight signals are already being broadcast to 86 percent of the country, but you need StarSight circuitry to make it work with your TV or VCR. (There had to be a catch, right?) In March, Zenith AVI televisions will hit the market with a StarSight decoder chip built in; Goldstar will put similarly equipped VCRs on the market in June. (You only need one to make the system work, by the way). Stand-alone StarSight decoders should be available by July, with a projected price of $199.

Home theater

As laser disc players become more common among discriminating cocooners, interest in home theater setups has expanded exponentially. CES was positively chockablock with wide-screen TVs, elaborate surround sound amplifiers, speakers and other audio-visual gewgaws.

Still, a few items stood out from the pack. For instance, there was BIC's Integrated Home Theater system. At first glance, it looks like any other A/V cabinet, with big holes for the TV, laser disc player and amplifier, and storage space on the sides. But where most cabinets stop at the woodwork, the Integrated Home Theater has the right-, left- and center-channel speakers built into the front of the unit. (Rear speakers, suitable for wall mounting, are also included). BIC expects to have them in stores by April, with a suggested list price of $900.

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