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Seriously Hi-Tech

Sony’s new Qualia store tries to take electronics way, way upscale— but where’s the fun?

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Enter the lower level of Sony’s Style store, at 550 Madison Avenue, near 55th Street, and you’ll think you’ve wandered into Prada or Porsche—the subdued crystal-bead lighting, the carpet with feng shui diagonals, the swirling curtains carving out separate spaces on the showroom floor. The difference is, in a special chamber at the back, you gaze at $2,600 headphones instead of $2,300 handbags. This is the showcase for Sony’s new Qualia product line, which is to Discman or Trinitron what Manolo Blahnik is to Hush Puppies. It represents Sony’s all-out bid for a place on the mantel of high-end electronics. And for now, it’s a puzzle.

At the recent opening-night party, the awesome attraction was the Qualia 006, a 70-inch rear-projection TV that uses a technology called SXRD (silicon-crystal reflective display), which forms a far more detailed, realistic picture than plasma. The set costs $10,000, which is reasonable, given its size and quality. Once Sony puts out smaller and presumably cheaper models, SXRD should dominate the high-definition marketplace.

But the 006 isn’t for sale just yet. So it was stowed away after the party. Ditto for another favorite, the Qualia 005, a $12,000 46-inch flat-screen liquid-crystal-display TV that offered up richer, more natural colors than any LCD I’ve ever seen. They’ll be back early next year, but the store feels vacant, and a bit pointless, without them. Twenty-two other TVs are scattered about, mainly plasmas. But you can see those anywhere.

The store did keep—in a separate room behind a curtain—the Qualia 004, an SXRD projector that costs $30,000. It sounds outrageous, but it isn’t, really: A lot of people spend much more for grand home-theater systems, and the 004 may well be the best digital projector on the market.

But the other Qualia products, sold exclusively at this store, are merely dear trinkets. The $2,600 Qualia 010 headphones look lovely, and sound very open in the treble. But they’re a bit much, given comparable models by Sennheiser and Stax at a quarter of the price. The Qualia 016, a nifty digital camera the size of your thumb, comes with two extra lenses, a wide-angle and a zoom. It snaps four pictures in rapid succession, then integrates them into the best image. But its resolution is a mere two megapixels and it costs $3,900. You can find palm-size six-megapixel cameras for under $500.

And the Qualia 017 is just bizarre. It’s a brass, hand-sculpted portable MiniDisc player (palladium-plated goes for $1,900, silver for $2,400, gold for $2,600). Very elegant, but who plays MiniDiscs anymore?

It’s no coincidence that Qualia opened its doors on the same night that Sony’s chief competitor opened its own showroom—the Samsung Experience—in the Time Warner Center. Samsung is announcing, “We’re not a Korean junk heap anymore; we make TVs that are cheap and good.” Sony is declaring, “We’re not just another Asian company getting our lunches handed to us by Samsung; we’re a specialty salon. Maybe you won’t buy our $10,000 TV, but its very existence will make you look differently at our mainstream wares.”

Sony may have misjudged its market, though. The problem with the Qualia salon is that it’s too hushed. The acoustics are wonderful, but there’s no music. Even the TVs are turned down low. This stuff is for home entertainment. It’s supposed to be fun.

So: Get rid of the “concierge” solemnly jotting down appointments. Replace the demo-tape loops that run all day with whole movies, either DVDs or HD broadcasts. Pump up the volume. And get back that 006.


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