NAB2007: North Hall Redo, HD Hits Mainstream
The annual NAB rite of passage on the desert has come and gone for broadcasters. If you were lucky enough to attend, you got to see firsthand how the tide is turning toward all things streaming.
Almost everywhere you looked, especially in the vast Central and South exhibit halls, there was something on display confirming the reality that Web streaming is the shooting star carrying consumer multimedia into the future. There is no doubt that this includes traditional broadcasters.
Perhaps you could not attend, though, so let me provide the scoop on new products and hot topics you missed. What is overheard in conversations amongst attendees regarding their experiences at NAB, not the expected pabulum you read in the trade press, tells the real story of what went on there.
RADIO GIVES WAY
The first thing I noticed when entering the North Hall where radio exhibits had always been for many years was that instead of the "Radio-Audio Exhibit Hall," I was met with "Acquisition & Production" and "Management & Systems."
Radio and audio were mere footnotes in the Program and Exhibit Guide. Half of the North Hall was filled with TV folks including Grass Valley and the vast Harris layout. Our old radio exhibitor friends were either at the other end of the hall or scattered throughout the remaining floor space along with a relocated attendee registration area.
This change speaks volumes about how our industry is being transformed and also why many traditional radio/audio vendors see the need to expand their universe of potential customers. Orban, for example, was only going to support one main booth in the South Hall to lure in new multimedia prospects, but then decided at the last moment to erect a small booth in the corner of the old radio hall. Unfortunately it didn't appear to me they were all that happy with the action in either location.
The South Hall seemed absolutely mobbed on most days. You could probably find every device known to man that could capture and stream video (and audio).
There were very few major products or "breakthrough" technology introductions for radio this year. Most of the hardware and software shown were improvements, enhancements or feature additions to existing products. I'll get to the notable ones, including some of the "Cool Stuff" winners, in just a moment. First let's shed some light on the big picture topics of NAB2007.
HD RADIO BECOMES MAINSTREAM
Aside from all the streaming hoopla, the issue of HD Radio was much on the minds of radio attendees and exhibitors.
Every transmission equipment booth there was pushing its IBOC-ready hardware. Harris, BE, Nautel and Continental all showed improved or upgraded versions of their exciters and transmitters. After not having an exhibit booth last year, Ibiquity chose to hold court this year at the new "Radio and Audio Stage, an HD Destination."
In the middle of the North Hall, a large roped-off presentation area featured most of the new HD Radios now being marketed, including several that sport price tags near $100. There are now literally dozens of models to choose from, including tabletop, component tuner and after-market car radios.
I had predicted last year after NAB, when Radio Shack announced the HD Accurian, that Circuit City and Best Buy wouldn't be far behind. Almost on cue, both are now on board. Best Buy is carrying HD Radios in all of its mega-stores across the country.
Unfortunately, none of the HD floor models on display were powered up for demonstration there, but a few were demonstrated in the Ibiquity hospitality suite at the Hilton. Every few hours various Ibiquity and HD station engineers would give a presentation about HD Radio implementation on the Radio Stage to a well-attended sit-down crowd.
HD Radio has almost become a fait accompli. Aside from a dwindling number of never-say-die HD-R opponents, including list-server noisemakers and quite a few small-market owners, every clear-thinking broadcaster I talked with realizes that HD-R is our digital platform for the future and is probably here to stay. By the time you read this, hopefully the approved FCC rulemaking for HD-R transmission standards will be in effect.
No it's not perfect and yes many compromises were made to make it work in our existing limited-bandwidth channels. There will be some AM interference to adjacent channels when full-time AM HD-R fires up. But the smartest guys out there who have studied this issue carefully do not see any AM "meltdown" resulting.
Other than the unhappy DXers and rim-shooters, the instances of real and actionable interference mitigation should be rather limited. On FM, the major markets are saturated with HD and HD2 signals. HD Radio prices are sure to drop below $100 on some models for the upcoming Christmas season.
NEW FEATURES FOR HD
We did see an HD-R innovation at the BE booth in the form of EPG, an electronic program guide integrated in the HD text display. Using a data engine from The Radio Experience for control via touchscreen, users will be able to select programs for store and replay in future generations of HD Radios.
This feature will be necessary to enable the long-promised and big interactive killer-app for HD-R: Radio TiVo. With so many folks addicted to the real TiVo, and also now their favorite podcast downloads, the necessity of real-time radio is easily trumped by store and play later.
Both BE and Harris showed another new HD feature called conditional access. It's being touted as a potential new moneymaker for HD stations who want to sell subscription radio to captive audiences. NDS developed the technology for set-top TV boxes that encrypts the HD Radio data stream to be able to turn on and off the channel in a user's radio. The technology has been field-tested at WUSF(FM) in Tampa on an HD3 channel and appears to work well.
With so many potential customers now using the Internet for targeted and protected content distribution, we have to wonder how much demand will emerge for this service, especially when WiMax and IP radios become significant. Nonetheless, it was honored as an RW "Cool Concept."
The last remaining hurdles HD-R has to clear for more rapid acceptance by the public are the successful introduction of small portable and pocket HD radios, along with OEM HD car radios. The new SiPort ultra-low-power consumption HD chipset promises to solve the first issue. By 2012, the "Big 3" American automakers should be rolling out stock HD Radios in many models to solve the second. After that, we can forever ignore the HD-R naysayers once and for all.
MAKING HD MORE RELIABLE
One of the few truly breakthrough award-winning ideas emerging at the show was Nautel's proposal to improve HD transmission performance and reliability over STLs using data networks.
The company calls it the E2X secure HD transport protocol. It's designed to dramatically smooth out the instantaneous bandwidth requirements and prevent data-packet loss and audio dropouts.
Any engineer who has installed HD-R using the Importer and Exporter/Exgine topology has discovered how fragile the process becomes when fighting through data traffic jams. The first lesson learned is to separate the HD transmission data path apart from the usual station business LAN using a VLAN, managed router or separate subnet. Adding E2X, the process of getting the data through becomes bulletproof-reliable and fault-tolerant. Nautel hopes to establish its invention into a standard protocol.
SURROUND MAKES NEW NOISE
The promise of transporting the 5.1 surround sound home theatre experience to radio has been treading water since five separate encoding systems appeared to vie for attention about four years ago.
Behind the scenes, Franhaufer quietly has been pushing forward its new MPEG surround solution. Its marketing partner in the United States is Telos, which announced over-the-air tests for it last year on WZLX(FM), Boston. They finally got it up and running just days before NAB2007 opened with a demo in the Telos booth.
The Telos team along with WZLX staff searched far and wide for original master recordings of classic rock tunes that could be encoded with MPEG surround, including a true stereo mix-down with full mono compatibility. After completing multi-channel upgrades to the WZLX audio chain, about 200 songs were encoded and are on the air right now. That's about 20 percent of their format. I can say unequivocally it is doggone impressive.
Radio World's Skip Pizzi and Cox DOE Steve Fluker headed up the NRSC subcommittee on surround sound technologies. Skip reported in a Thursday session pretty much what the industry has been expecting: there will be no attempts to evaluate the various systems for the purposes of setting a "standard" surround sound technology for FM broadcasting. All of them, including the matrix systems, play reasonably well for consumer entertainment consumption.
It will be up to broadcasters to decide which one fits their goals best before building multi-channel capabilities and finding adequate and appropriate library resources to feature over the air surround sound. Let's hope record companies embrace this opportunity to sell new versions of old and new favorites alike and start ramping up production of surround sound music in all genres.
Steve Church at Telos is convinced that is already happening. But I still have a hard time finding much surround sound product at most popular music stores.
VISITING FMEXTRA VIA ARUBA
Derek Kumar's all-digital subcarrier solution has attracted some support as a possible alternative to HD-R.
Introduced two years ago, Digital Radio Express has been working hard installing its FMeXtra system on various stations to test and prove its viability. DRE staged a large booth to show off its capabilities along with the unveiling of the new Aruba FMeXtra tabletop receiver. They gave away an Aruba every hour via business card drawings every day of the show.
As a dramatically more efficient FM subcarrier delivery platform, FMeXtra is a winner. At 48 kbps, audio quality in stereo can match HD-R using both HD and HD2 at those rates.
But without time and frequency diversity for multi-path mitigation, plus lack of multi-channel and significant data capability, this technology is no match for HD-R, especially in the mobile environment. At best, FMeXtra is an upgrade for existing SCA services. Nonetheless, it did garner a "Cool Stuff" award.
VERY COOL STUFF
Speaking of things cool, the annual Radio World "Cool Stuff" awards and the Pick Hit awards given out by our fine competitor Radio Magazine revealed how targeted and diverse the usual new product offerings have become.
While I have no idea who does the picking and what the criteria are for these proceedings, only five products were honored with both awards out of 24 total "Cool Stuff" and 15 Pick Hit awards. In past years, there were many more "double winners." What now appeals to one group as a sure-fire big deal sometimes is ignored by the other.
Most of the winners were niche products filling a particular application, but several of them, along with a a few deserving non-winners and a popular MIA product, are worthy of further discussion here:
Harris has always covered the gamut of almost every significant piece of broadcast technology in its grand-scale booth. Its Intraplex digital T1 STL product line has always been shown in recent years and has been a bestseller. This year, Intraplex was nowhere to be found. Down the hall, the APT Technologies booth of competing products was larger than ever, displaying an expanded line of T1 and Ethernet STLs and digital codecs.
Barix AG, a Swiss company showing very effective yet inexpensive audio over Internet codecs, was passed over for a "Cool Stuff" award. The improved Instreamer and Exstreamer units are being used everywhere as STLs where microwave and telco are not affordable or available. What could be more cool? (RW editors tell me Barix won an earlier award as a contributor amongst several to the Harris Masterlink-IP product. But it appears to me the company has advanced this technology and it's notable that these are now offered as their own two flagship products.)
Wheatstone was probably one of the more significant non-winners with a large presence. Almost without being noticed, the well-established console company has added a full line of audio processing products for all applications. Its flagship full-featured product, the Vorsis, was introduced and won a "Cool Stuff" last year, but this year it seems even more impressive. Bob, Frank and Marvin need to make room at the processing table for one more.
If you've been looking for a 12-channel console/mixer that looks and feels like a real console, and comes with full broadcast functions in a small package, Don Winget of Broadcast Tools has stepped up to offer the budget-priced ProMix12. It looks very similar to a Harris mini-console from 2001 that never made it, but Don's version is $500 cheaper. No longer are the Mackie and Behringer mixers your only small-footprint choices.
Hank Landsberg and Henry Engineering won again this year with yet another little blue box, the USB-AES Matchbox. It's a natural successor to the ubiquitous analog Matchbox.
Burk impressed many with its new AFD-1 arc and flame detector module for remote monitoring apps. It also won with the cleverly named WatchBand off-air monitor. With WatchBand, engineers and groups can remotely monitor their stations via a Web page, including audio metrics, out- of-tolerance and off-air audio alarms and logging. It can even generate playlists for market stations.
DaySequerra joined in the remote air monitoring parade with its snazzy M3 Monitor. The M3 contains three separate AM, FM and HD Radio tuners in a 2 RU box to monitor and alarm virtually everything. Each tuner's vacuum florescent display shows station frequency, HD channels, analog RBDS data, signal strength and multipath, plus status indicators. We finally have a number of good HD mod monitors to choose from. Early HD adopters had none for several years.
Comrex added the highly crafted portable Access cellphone remote broadcast kit to the companion base unit showed last year. Doing near-broadcast quality remotes with a handheld device via a cellphone call really revolutionizes that activity. Tieline also showed their enhanced product in this category, the G3 Commander, which deserved to win as much as Access. The Tieline product won the award last year but has undergone substantial improvements as standards changed. The Commander seems deserving for most of the same technical reasons Access was given a second award.
The JK Audio Daptor Three attracted lots of attention. Anything Bluetooth is always cool. This unit allows balanced or unbalanced connections to your cell phone like any other Bluetooth wireless technology-enabled headset. It also will connect to any other product that allows a wireless headset connection such as a laptop.
Kowa introduced the PX-10 compact Hotkey audio player using multiple USB thumb drives or flash cards for storage. It even looks a bit like an Instant Replay, but with this one, no more headaches replacing noisy or dead hard drives.
Frank Foti has been busy developing a digital audio clean-up process called Sensus. He showed it as an enhancement to his Omnia audio processors, including the new Omnia ONE. Sensus is a new algorithm designed to dynamically optimize and precondition digital audio so coding artifacts are greatly minimized when subjected to heavy bit-rate compression, typically used on Web streams. The A/B demo was unbelievably impressive. Frank has always been good at that.
Doug Vernier of V-Soft unveiled AM-Pro-2, an AM RF engineer's dream come true. Analyzing protection limits and designing optimized directional arrays for new or existing stations with full-color dynamic graphics is finally a snap. Or should I say, just a few mouse clicks.
Perhaps the most surprising "Cool Stuff" radio award went to a TV product. As one judge wrote in the wrapup issue of RW, it's a sign of the times that increasing numbers of radio stations see the need to be able to shoot video of special events in and out of their air studios to throw up on their Web sites and live streams. The NewTek Tricaster Studio is an affordable video capture unit with effects, editing, storage and streaming capabilities. "Just the ticket for those who think radio must become TV to survive the video Web streaming revolution."