CES 2004: Before the Flood

Although the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) officially runs from Thursday, January 8 through Sunday, January 11, the day before the show has traditionally been reserved for press conferences by the major electronics companies. In recent years, audio news has been overshadowed by home-theater and video announcements, since that is where the big boys have decided the mass market has gone. This year was no different, but that's not to say there was no audio news.

Before the day even got underway, Apple's MacWorld announcement of the iPod Mini—a $249 4GB chip off the iPod block—had eclipsed any audio news coming out of Vegas so far. As it so happened, Stereophile had already scheduled an appointment with Apple's Danika Cleary, an iPod product manager, to present the iPod with our 2004 Budget Product of the Year and Editor's Choice awards, so we got to examine the diminutive portable first-hand. Billed as the "world's smallest portable player capable of holding 1000 songs," the mini is tiny—barely larger than a credit card, it weighs 3.6 ounces. It scarcely has room for its 1.6" diagonal LCD screen and a small scrollwheel, but it packs full-size functionality, using the same iTunes interface and operating system as its larger sibling. It would be tempting to say that we think the Mini is going to be huge, but our editor probably wouldn't let us get away with that.

The new mini iPod and WP: from left to right, Jon Iverson, Apple's Danika Cleary, and Wes Phillips.

Another story was conspicuous in its absence: there was virtually no mention of either SACD or DVD-Audio, other than a display of DVD-A titles in Meridian's booth—in all fairness, however, that booth was not yet open for business and may have more to say on the subject later in the week. The major manufacturers had no news on either front and, when asked direct questions concerning them, seemed embarrassed. Is high-rez digital a dead issue?

There are still format wars in the news, however, one only has to look at recordable DVD to see one being waged quite openly. But we suspect there's an even bigger one brewing that no one has openly addressed yet. Several of the new products from the major manufacturers are now supporting Windows Media file transfer and playback. While iTunes and its AAC format are clearly the runaway success stories in downloaded audio, compatibility with AAC or iTunes was nowhere to be seen so far at this CES. We'll have more in depth coverage on what Windows Media will mean to audiophiles in a couple of days.