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The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.

 

Hold that thought for a moment.

 

In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.

 

As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.

 

As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.

 

And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.

 

As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.

 

Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.

 

So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?

 

There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.

 

But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.

 

A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.

 

It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.

 

This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.

 

I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.

 

And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

The 4 Hottest Trends in Luxury Video

The 4 Hottest Trends in Luxury Video

Samsung’s The Wall Luxury microLED TV

I got a chance to get a bead on the latest trends in luxury video this past week at the annual custom integrators CEDIA Expo in Denver. It was great to see that some of the most intriguing products announced at January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) are finally becoming real. 

 

microLED DISPLAYS

Perhaps the most exciting technology on display were large-screen microLED video panels that can come in sizes up to 65 feet diagonal. The images on these screens are incredibly bright, have no loss of black level due to ambient lighting, offer incredible contrast, support a wider color gamut, offer superior off-angle viewing, and handle HDR signals far better than front-projection systems.

 

MicroLED systems use small LED tiles, usually little larger than a brick, that snap into a larger matrix to form the full panel. You can later add more tiles to form an even larger screen, and tiles can be replaced as needed. (Most displays ship with extra tiles that have been matched to ensure color uniformity in the picture and facilitate in-field replacement.)

 

MicroLED panels increase resolution by decreasing the size of the pixel structure, or pitch. Reducing the distance between pixels—as measured from center-of-pixel to center-of-pixel—makes individual pixels invisible at typical seating distances.

Many companies offer panels with pixel pitch of less than 8mm.

 

The downside? This technology is massively expensive. How massive? Samsung’s 146-inch diagonal The Wall Luxury (shown above) will retail for $400,000. Need bigger? Sony has you covered with it’s Crystal LED Display System—previously given the awkward nickname CLEDIS—with a 16 x 9-foot panel (219-inch diagonal) that is full 4K resolution, with 1-million:1 contrast and supports high frame rates up to 120 fps, selling for $877,000. Other manufacturers I spoke with—such as Planar, Barco, and Digital Projection—all offer panels of varying sizes with similar pricing.

 

For the luxury market, this is truly the ultimate solution; but it looks likely microLED will never reach mainstream pricing.

 

 

LARGE-SCREEN PROJECTION

If you want a screen larger than 90 inches for your luxury theater or media room but don’t want to pay the exorbitant prices commanded by microLED displays, front-projection systems remain the best way to go. Due to limitations in light output, projectors often struggle with HDR signals, which are typically mastered for LED displays capable of producing far brighter images. Improving HDR handling is something projector companies continue working on, and both Sony and JVC rolled out new firmware specifically to address how their projectors process HDR images.

 

JVC’s new Frame Adapt HDR analyzes the peak brightness of each frame using a proprietary algorithm and adjusts dynamic range to provide the best possible HDR image. Frame Adapt HDR works with any HDR10 content, meaning all HDR sources—Kaleidescape Strato, Ultra HD Blu-ray players, Apple TV 4K, Xbox One, etc.—can be enjoyed with greater dynamic range and image quality.

 

Barco displayed a very cool projection solution by using a mirror system and its projection-warping technology to place the projector way off center and hidden out of the way—

actually turned sideways in a soffit and firing from the back corner of the room—while still offering a fantastic large-screen image.

 

 

ULTRA-SHORT-THROW PROJECTION

Ultra-short-throw projectors can sit very close to the screen wall—often just inches away—tucked low and out of sight, and can even be completely concealed in cabinetry. Paired with ambient-light-rejecting screens, these projectors produce bright and contrasty images in a typically lit room, meaning they can serve as a TV replacement, giving you 100 to 120 inches of screen that can be enjoyed all the time.

 

Short-throws have typically been priced for the upper end of the market. But at least four companies—LG, Epson, Optoma, and Hisense—now offer 4K laser projectors, usually paired with an appropriate screen and featuring a basic audio system, for under $6,000. This makes them a more attractive option for secondary rooms, like a den or bedroom. 

 

 

8K VIDEO

It seems silly to be talking about 8K video when we aren’t even at a point where broadcast TV—either off-the-air, cable, or satellite—can regularly deliver 4K images, but progress never stops in technology land. Sony, LG, and Samsung all demonstrated 8K displays at the show.

 

Beyond the added pixels—of which there are over 33 million in a 7,680 x 4,320 array—these sets also feature flagship video processing and higher brightness. And it’s these other features that have far more impact on the image than all the extra pixels.

 

Of the sets on display, one of the most impressive was LG’s new 88-inch 8K OLED, which delivered truly lifelike images, with amazing color detail and the ultra-deep black levels for which OLED is known. I’m sure they were feeding the set true 8K images, as they had stunning clarity and depth. At $30,000, this set is truly luxury, but for the viewer who wants the best-of-the-best, this 8K OLED panel won’t fail to impress.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There isn’t anyone (my parents excluded) who made quite the same long-term indelible impression on my life as Jim Henson did. Fred Rogers is close, but with Henson I’ve continued being entranced by his work, and the work of his company, far beyond my formative childhood years. I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol every December, Farscape is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and I’ve recently introduced my four-year-old son to Fraggle Rock. And of course he loves the lessons learned on Sesame Street.

 

But there was something about the release of The Dark Crystal in 1982 that had an even deeper impact. Maybe it was the fantasy setting or the incredible world-building of Thra, the world of the film. Or maybe the painstaking detail put into the terrifying Skeksis or the relatable Gelfling named Jen. Whatever it was, when The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was announced as a prequel to the movie, I was part ecstatic and part scared. Would the Netflix series be able to capture the magic I felt from the film? And prequels can be problematic, as we already know what the outcome is going to be—at least in a broad sense.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There was no need for me to worry. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a beautifully-crafted example of storytelling that builds on the mythology of the movie. The first couple episodes are a bit slow moving as there’s a decent amount of exposition covered and there are multiple storylines that need to be addressed and followed, but things soon get moving. And all the while we are treated to the expansive landscape of Thra, more so than what was presented in the movie.

 

Landscapes are full and lush, with intricate detail that’s on full display in the 4K Dolby Vision presentation. The characters are wonderfully unique—from the Skeksis to Gelflings to Podlings—and the HDR highlights the depth of the puppet designs. The

characters are brought to life with an all-star cast that includes Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, and Lena Headey. I was fully invested in their stories. The voice acting and puppetry kept me engaged throughout.

 

The vast majority of the series uses practical effects, but there are a few 

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

moments when CGI is employed that don’t quite match and can be mildly distracting when viewed in 4K HDR. Luckily these moments are few.

 

The Atmos audio is done tastefully. For the most part, surround channels are used to enhance the atmosphere with ambient effects sent to the rears. There are a couple choice moments with motion through the Atmos height channels that could draw your attention from the screen, but I didn’t find the mix to be excessive in any way.

 

Considering that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is building upon an existing mythology, I could understand some concern that someone coming to the series fresh might feel lost. Luckily that isn’t the case. There’s plenty of information to bring in new visitors to Thra while keeping those of us who have spent years there enthralled. It’s an adventure for new and old alike.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

A Guide to Luxury Source Components

A Guide to Luxury Source Components
What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

Continuing our series on the basic building blocks of a luxury entertainment system, it’s time for us to discuss some of the less sexy decisions you need to make. That’s right, we’ve come to the electronics, and we’ll be breaking this broad category into two separate posts to make it a little easier to digest.

 

First up, we’ll be tackling source components, with sound processing and amplification covered in a future update. If you’re not familiar with the term “source components,” it basically covers all of the little black (or sometimes white) boxes you plug

into your home entertainment system to provide audio and video entertainment. Your satellite receiver is a source component. Your disc player is, too, if you’re still clinging to those things (which you may well be if you live in a remote area with unreliable network access or already have a gigantic collection of silver platters).

 

But if you’re building a modern luxury home-entertainment system in a reasonably well-connected locale, chances are good neither of those old standbys will find its way into your system. One source you’ll definitely want to add, though, is a good media streamer. And this is true even if you’ve decided on a TV that has smart streaming apps built in, because dedicated streamers do make a difference when it comes to video quality.

 

If you already have a preferred media-streaming platform of choice, you can, of course, opt for that one. Just know that not all of the various options are interchangeable, so it’s a good idea to decide which streaming apps you use the most and get the media streamer that best supports them. Want to watch Netflix with Dolby Atmos sound? Apple TV can do it; Chromecast can’t. Do you already have a pretty significant library of films in the Vudu app? Roku and Apple TV have an app for that; Amazon Fire TV doesn’t. Looking forward to the new Disney+ streaming service? You’ll be able to watch it via any dedicated media streamer or gaming console—except for Amazon Fire TV.

 

Of course, there are any number of reasons why you don’t want to rely on a media streamer as your sole source of video content. For one thing, only a handful of streaming 

apps out there at the moment—Netflix, Vudu, and Amazon, just to name a few of the few—deliver truly fantastic audio and video quality. Far too many streaming providers, though, are still stuck in 2016 when it comes to their delivery methods and their quality. And then, of course, there’s the fact that even a rock-solid and reliable internet 

connection can be counted on to occasionally drop out at the least convenient time.

 

That’s why you’ll also want to have a reference-quality video server in your system. Something like the Kaleidescape movie player (shown at the top of the page) will not only give you a truly reference-quality viewing and listening experience, since its collection of downloadable films and TV shows is much less compressed than what you’ll get from streaming (and sometimes

even less compressed than what you’ll get from discs); your collection is also there for the viewing anytime you want, since your internet connection is only used for the initial download. In other words, your entertainment is stored locally, on rock-solid, monitored hardware.

 

The other big benefit of the Kaleidescape ecosystem is its elegant user interface. And if you think that’s not a big deal, try something for me: Fire up Netflix or Vudu or Amazon or any of the otherwise great streaming services, and try to find something worth watching. It can be a bit frustrating, can’t it? Kaleidescape not only offers curated collections that help you hone your purchasing decisions, but it also offers a couple different ways to navigate the content you already own. If you know, for example, that you want to watch Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, you can simply peruse your library in alphabetical order, and there it is, right near the top.

 

If, on the other hand, you know you’re in the mood for something a little more classic, but you’re not quite sure what, you might prefer to browse your library by cover art instead. Taking this route is almost like scanning your shelves for a disc, assuming you could find a magical shelf that would rearrange your disc collection every time your eyes rested on one particular title for more than a few seconds. Gravitate to Lawrence of Arabia, for example, and your library will rearrange to surround it with titles like The Bridge on the River Kwai.

 

For movies and TV shows, that’s really all you need: A good media streamer for day-to-day viewing and a Kaleidescape for those treasured favorites that you return to time and 

again, and for anything you want to view in the best quality possible. If you’re a gamer, you’ll probably want to add a PlayStation 4 Pro, an Xbox One, or a Nintendo Switch—or perhaps all three. And if you’re an old-school audiophile or new-school analog audio enthusiast, you might also add a good turntable to this mix. If, on the other hand, you’re more of a hi-res digital hi-fi aficionado, you might want a Roon server.

 

But those are personal choices, of course. If we’re just talking the basics, two good sources are all you really need.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

In the roughly 17 years that I’ve been an AV reviewer, I’ve covered pretty much every product category. I’ve reviewed video displays, speakers, remote controls, disc players, AV receivers—you name it. And while the products I reviewed covered a wide price range, there was always one category I tried to avoid: High-end audio. Now, I can’t give you an exact price or spec that represented the cutoff where I would pass an audio review opportunity on to someone else. The best way I can quantify “high-end audio” is to say that you know it when you see it. And perhaps that’s part of my concern with it.

 

Eventually my focus moved into the realm of display reviews, and one reason I’m quite comfortable there is because, generally speaking, there are clear, quantifiable steps that distinguish one performance class from another. You can measure black level and contrast, color accuracy, and now HDR peak brightness and accuracy. You can say to someone, “If you really

value [this], then you should buy [that].” “If you mostly use your TV to do [this], then you should save your money and get [that].” Of course you’ll run into products that straddle the fence between budget and mid-level, or between mid-level and high-end, which may make it harder to render a final verdict, but those are more the exception than the rule.

 

That wasn’t always the case, though. I first started reviewing displays in the early days of high-definition. There were virtually no budget HDTVs, but there was certainly a high-end realm, inhabited by brands like Mitsubishi, JVC, and Pioneer Elite. Sitting at the very top of the food chain was Runco, maker of the ultimate high-end TVs and 

projectors. It wasn’t necessarily that Runco displays performed significantly better than other lower-priced options, but they were sold exclusively through dealers that were trained to provide a level of service and support to justify the products’ high-end prices. And that model worked for them. It’s fair to say that Runco owned the luxury market.

 

But then a funny thing happened. Samsung and Vizio came along and proved that you could sell TVs that performed really well for a lot less money. JVC and Epson did the same thing with front projectors. High-definition displays became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, and the brands that couldn’t adapt to this new reality died. One by one the high-end display products just sort of fell away. Even Runco was ultimately purchased by commercial-display company Planar, which tried for a while to keep a presence in the luxury home market but eventually gave up.

 

Sure, names like SIM2 and B&O still exist, but they cater to a very niche market of loyalists. For the most part, the era of the truly exorbitantly priced home video product is dead.

 

That’s not the case in the audio market, at least not to the same extent. This market has faced similar challenges over the past 10 years, as companies like GoldenEar, SVS, and ELAC on the speaker side and Emotiva on the electronics side have proven that you can deliver high-performance audio products for a lot less money.

 

It has certainly been disruptive, forcing some brands out of business and others into the hands of private-equity companies. But big-name audiophile brands like Paradigm, Focal, MartinLogan, Revel, NAD, Anthem, and Marantz are still alive and kicking—and producing great gear at lower price points than ever before.

 

But it poses the question, as the mid-level offerings from these companies get better and better, how can they continue to justify the existence of higher-end lines, especially in the speaker market? How do you quantify the improvement? That has always been my struggle.

 

Sure, you can measure a speaker’s frequency response and sensitivity. You can measure an amp’s power and distortion. There are some performance benchmarks by which to judge a product. But measurements don’t tell the whole story in audio.

 

Personal preference is certainly a valid benchmark. Some people prefer a little fuller bass, a little more prominent midrange, or a more emphasized treble. That’s true of any audio product, no matter the price. (Hey, it’s true in video, too. Some people prefer a less accurate, more exaggerated picture. But unlike with a TV, you can’t offer multiple performance modes in 

a pair of speakers that will significantly alter the sound profile to appeal to different tastes.)

 

As you move into the truly high-end audio realm, the performance conversation moves away from those basic sonic characteristics that are easily defined and more toward elusive qualities like space, texture, and liquidity—words that often make the more technically minded audio fan bristle. What exactly are we describing there? I’m not even sure what liquidity sounds like.

 

Certainly, build quality and design help to distinguish many high-end products. The use of higher-quality parts. A product that has been hand-assembled, or at least individually inspected and approved. Real-wood cabinets. Automotive-grade custom paint finishes. 

 

But even here you reach a point of diminishing returns on your investment. Some of the most eye-catching speakers I’ve seen at recent trade shows include the Focal Kanta No. 2 ($10,000/pair), the Paradigm Persona 5F ($17,000/pair), and the Revel Performa F228Be ($10,000/pair). For me, 

these seem like the pinnacle of performance and luxury, so when I see the existence of $65,000/pair or $100,000/pair speakers, my response is: Why? I’ve yet to hear a satisfying answer to this question, which is why high-end audio is still a category I shy away from as a reviewer. I just don’t get it.

 

I also wonder how much longer it can last. The high-end audio market has proven itself more resilient (or maybe just more stubborn) than the high-end video market, but is the end nigh? One audio reviewer I know has mentioned that the trend at many audiophile shows these days is to create products where exoticism, rather than sound quality, is the apparent goal. He sometimes derides these products as “wacky.” Like, if you can’t convince people to buy something expensive, convince them to buy something “unique” instead. This trend might be even worse, but that’s a topic for another day.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Mindhunter: Season Two

Mindhunter: Season Two

There is a deep fascination in American culture with crime stories, and in particular, serial killers. We’ve had award-winning movies like Silence of the Lambs, which was based on an amalgamation of serial killers, award-winning TV shows like Dexter that portrayed its lead character as a sympathetic serial killer, and documentaries like Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes that aim to give us a glimpse inside the mind of a serial killer. That isn’t to say America holds a monopoly on serial killers or the fascination therewith, but we certainly have more than our fair share.

 

In the 1970s, this led to the creation of the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The unit was originally comprised of 10 agents, and a few years after its formation, they began to visit and interview captured serial killers in prison to try and profile them and discover their motives. The Netflix series Mindhunter is based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, which was co-written by one of the members of the BSU, John E. Douglas, and its first season was a fictionalization of the creation of that unit.

 

That first season focused primarily on Agents Holdon Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they dealt with setting up the BSU in an FBI whose views on their psychological work were at best dismissive and at worst severely hindering. They were joined by psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) to try and bring some legitimacy to their work. Peppered throughout the season is the development of Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti) into the BTK Killer. In addition to the excellent performances by Groff, McCallany, Torv, and Valicenti, there are dynamite breakthrough performances by Cameron 

Britton as Ed Kemper and Happy Anderson as Jerry Brudos, both serial killers interviewed by Ford and Tench.

 

After a long hiatus (which made me wonder if the show was ever going to return), Season Two takes everything from Season One to another level. The interviewing of serial killers continues, as does the outstanding performances by the actors portraying 

Mindhunter: Season Two

them. Damon Herriman as Charles Manson is particularly captivating (incidentally, he plays the same role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). While the story of BTK continues throughout, the season’s central incident ends up being the Atlanta Child Murders that happened at the end of the ’70s and into the ’80s.

 

During the nine episodes, the lead actors are able to exercise their acting chops as we get character studies of them. And they all deliver. Ford tries to come to terms with a mental breakdown he experienced at the hands of Kemper at the end of Season One, Tench has an incident happen with his family that leads him to question how his job affects his personal life, and Carr struggles with the harsh realities of having to be closeted and trying to have a life while working for the Bureau in the ‘70s. The addition of Michael Cerveris as the new FBI Assistant Director means that, perhaps, they now have someone of power in their corner.

 

David Fincher, who is one of the executive producers, masterfully directs the first three episodes, setting an ominous and stark tone for the rest of the season. Visuals have excellent detail and the set dressing and props work perfectly to build the late ‘70s/early ‘80s timeframe. The 1080p version is very good, but the episodes really shine with 4K HDR. There isn’t anything exceptionally flashy in the show, but the HDR adds excellent depth to the darker scenes and causes an overall grittier presentation. In a good way.

 

There is some very interesting, subtle sound work throughout the episodes, especially in how the atmosphere of the backgrounds amplify the mood of the scenes. This is the majority of how the surrounds are used in the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus mix. There is no Atmos version available.

 

Both seasons of Mindhunter are available for streaming through Netflix. Season Two could stand on its own, but you’ll miss a bunch of backstory. I’d recommend binging the entire 19-episode series.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

John Wick 3: Parabellum

John Wick 3

The John Wick series manages to do something I’m not sure any other film trilogy/franchise has been able to pull off—each film has scored a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than the previous one, with John Wick 3: Parabellum garnering a trilogy-high of 90%.

 

Think of that for a moment—not Star Wars, Toy Story, The Godfather, Alien, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Matrix, or Hunger Games can boast continued improvement across their initial three films. (Though, Toy Story did score a tough-to-beat 100/100/98, and Rings managed a similarly impressive 91/95/93.)

 

What that means is that if you’re a fan of the Wick franchise, the story just keeps getting better, and this latest installment is more of what you love, with amped-up story, stunts, exotic locales, and, of course, tons of Wick-fu.

 

In many ways, John Wick is the perfect character for Keanu Reeves. Wick is a man of few words, and Reeves often comes across best (and least reminiscent of Ted Theodore Logan) when he isn’t delivering lots of dialogue. Reeves is also quite accomplished in mixed martial arts, with Wick’s fighting style and combat moves tailored to Reeves’ actual strengths. And Reeves is an avid motorcycle collector and rider, making him comfortable zooming around New York streets in Wick’s black suit. And damn, John Wick is just so cool.

 

If you are new to the John Wick franchise, definitely start with the first film as it will give you the much-needed background as to why John Wick is the man he is, a top-shelf retired assassin, and why crossing the Baba Yaga is such a terrible thing to fear. Also, it’s just a fun film, introducing you to a great underworld where assassins live and work amongst us, trading gold coins for a variety of services and favors.

 

The pattern of the series keeps building in intensity as we have Wick reluctantly forced “back to work,” on the run and doing what he does best. The first film begins with John retired and living a solitary life. However, after the son of a Russian crime boss murders a puppy Wick was given by his dying wife, Wick seeks revenge, killing all that stand between him and the puppy killer.

 

In the second film, John is once again forced to return to work after an Italian crime lord, Santino, calls in a old marker, a blood oath that can be exchanged for any favor or request, and which cannot be ignored by the rules of the underground. John fulfills the terms of the marker, but then Santino puts a $7 million contract on him, forcing Wick to kill him to once again gain his freedom.

 

If you’re up to speed on Wick 1 and 2 then this exchange at the very end of John Wick 2 is really all you need to know about Parabellum:

 

John Wick: “Tell them. Tell them all. Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all.”

Winston: “Of course you will.”

 

Parabellum begins immediately following the events of John Wick 2, with Wick being excommunicado for “working” on the grounds of the Continental and on the run in New York with a $14 million global bounty on his head from the members of the High Table. Cut off from all “privileges” of the Continental and any other underworld resources, Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) has given John a one-hour head start before his contract is open and every killer in New York starts coming to cash in.

 

With ruthless attackers closing in from all sides, John is forced to call in some old favors to find safe passage out of the city and locate the one man above the High Table who can call off the contract, allowing John to return to his life. This leads John to Casablanca, Morocco where old “friend” Sofia (Halle Berry) reluctantly agrees to help him.

 

JW3 takes the Latin adage from its title—Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”)—to heart, and the 2 hour and 11 minute run time is almost non-stop action, with even the few quiet bits filled with tension and some bit of storytelling that moves the film forward or fills in some bit of John’s past.

 

The fight scenes are lightning quick, brutal, and choreographed to perfection, often involving multiple people, usually with a variety of weapons, with Wick using anything and everything at his disposal to dispatch those coming after him. This includes knives, an axe, a book, a belt, a horse, a dog, a motorcycle, and guns. Lots of guns. (To be fair, he did say he’d kill them all . . .)

 

While shot on ARRIRAW at 3.2K resolution and taken from a 2K digital intermediate, I never felt the image wanted for detail or resolution. Images were consistently sharp and detailed throughout, whether it is the weave in fabric, the texture in walls and surfaces, or the lines and pores in actors’ faces, JW3 looks great throughout.

 

Even better than the resolution is what HDR does for this movie. With much of the film either in dark exteriors or interiors, or at the far opposite end of the spectrum in the brightly lit desert or harsh fluorescent lighting, HDR makes images in Wick pop. Blacks—of which there are many and, in many shades and degrees throughout—look consistently clean, noise-free and true black. For example, John’s signature black ensemble—including jacket, shirt, tie, belt, and shoes—is distinctly visible even in

dark rooms. The film’s early night scenes over New York look especially terrific, with the black night sky punctuated by the bright city lights reminding me a bit of an Apple 4K screensaver.

 

Colors are also pushed, such as the bright yellow of taxis in the city, or the deep red of brake- and taillights, or the cool blue of interiors. During a night fight in Casablanca, there are multiple torches burning brightly against a black night sky and dark interiors, something that could definitely cause banding, but the image remained stable and solid. Another interior of a large ballet theater had sumptuous red and ornate gold designs, reminding me of a Theo Kalomirakis design brought to life on a grand scale.

 

Sonically, the Atmos mix is also first rate, with the sound designers taking every opportunity to fill the room with sound, whether it is the massive report of gunshots, a pouring rainstorm, the squeal of tires and engines, or ambient street and outdoor sounds.

 

New York here seems to be under a perpetual deluge, and the room is drenched in audio as rain splashes down all around you. The dynamics of gunshots also

John Wick 3

add serious realism, with you feeling several concussive bass waves blast you in the chest, and wood and stone splinter and shatter debris around you from near misses.

 

Music has also been an integral part to the feeling of the Wick series, and that continues here. One great example is, as John is preparing for one of the big gun battles at the end in the Continental, Vivaldi’s “Winter” plays loudly through the speaker channels, adding an interesting score as he prepares to go on the hunt.

 

The film’s conclusion couldn’t scream, “There will be a fourth movie!” any louder if it had been printed in neon letters in the closing credits, and Wick fans will be happy to know that following Parabellum’s success, John Wick: Chapter 4 has already been announced with a May 2021 release date.

 

John Wick 3: Parabellum is available now for early download prior to its disc release on September 10.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Aquarela

Aquarela

I recently saw Victor Kossakovsky’s astonishing Aquarela (Portuguese for “watercolor”) at The Landmark theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan. This is not your typical documentary.

 

First off, it’s filmed at a frame rate of 96 frames per second. Projectors capable of showing it at this speed are extremely rare, but many theaters, including The Landmark, are showing it at 48 frames per second (as opposed to the typical 24). This

translated to incredible detail, especially of water spray, ice crystals, any kind of small particles. It also provided very smooth, seamless camera pans that felt very natural.

 

This visually breathtaking nature documentary contains zero voiceover narration, minimal dialogue, and very little music score. What scoring there is is original rock 

music, which was not my favorite, but worked whenever used (which was sparingly, fortunately). The sound (in Dolby Atmos), though not the star of the film, was a vital supporting player and was especially effective in the sequence of Greenland’s calving glaciers. Hearing glacial shifts, cracks, and bellows all around you was very powerful. I suspect this will be equally effective experienced in a reference-quality home theater, when Aquarela receive its inevitable UHD Blu-ray and streaming release.

 

But the true star of this film is water, captured in its many different forms all around the world.

 

The first sequence takes place atop a frozen lake in Siberia, where, during the coldest months, people drive across to get from one place to another. What we soon discover, however, is that the ice has begun to melt (three weeks earlier than usual,

Aquarela

according to one victim of the thaw) and cars are actually falling through the ice while people are driving them! It is one of the scariest parts of the film, and an unexpected choice to open with. I found myself on the edge of my seat; and the matter of life and death, juxtaposed with the calmness of the expanse of glass-like ice, was chilling (pardon the expression).

 

The next sequence, possibly my favorite, showed the glaciers of Greenland as they calved then fell, bobbed, rolled, and floated in the icy waters below. Their dramatic, smooth, and graceful movements made me feel like I was watching a well-choreographed ballet. Also, as the ice emerged from the water, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from a film I watched over and over as a kid, Superman: The Movie, specifically the moment when the Fortress of Solitude was being created, with shards of ice rising to the surface. But, astonishingly, Aquarela is real. No special effects here.

 

A calmer moment showed icebergs silently drifting in the sea. Like one might when looking at the clouds, I found myself seeing things in their shapes. One iceberg looked like a dragon, for example, as it slithered past a sailboat with a busy crew

that took no notice of the creature. On a side note, the floating bergs also reminded me of the incredible pastel art of Zaria Forman (shown at right).

 

At times I found it difficult to tell the scale of what I was looking at, but that is part of Aquarela’s magic. And, like many great magic tricks, the solution is even more impressive than the 

Aquarela

trick itself. Kossakovsky masterfully keeps us guessing until he gives us a long shot of a large sailing vessel anchored alongside an immense, mountainous glacier. The sailboat resembles a tiny toy next to it.

 

Next, we see icebergs from a vantage I had never seen before, neither in film nor photograph. Shot from underneath, along their crystalline surfaces, are some of the most beautiful closeups in the film, of which there are many. This portion is probably the most abstract of the entire film and it’s like a visual fantasy straight out of Fantasia. The color and quality of the light glowing through the ice and water is something to behold.

 

Subsequent sequences include more man versus nature (a theme sprinkled throughout) including a crew of two navigating a sailboat in a storm, evacuation and devastation from the Oroville Dam crisis in California, and a riveting drive through the streets of Miami in the heart of Hurricane Irma.

Aquarela

The film ends with gorgeous shots of Angel Falls in Veneruela, but my other favorite sequence (and certainly one of the more magnificent moments in the film) comes about 3/4 of the way through, consisting of beautiful closeups of ocean waves. The detail of the sea spray, the fluidity of the water, and the crispness of the image (the high frame rate certainly helps here) are truly mesmerizing. And again, what is the scale? Are these waves actually just tiny ripples or giant tsunamis?

 

My overall reaction to Aquarela was one of wonder, amazement, and fear. Wonder of how the actual filming of it is, in and of itself, man versus nature. Amazement at how very small we as humans are and how much of our world is water. And fear of what’s happening to our planet and how delicate the balance between man and nature really is.

 

This film offers us the chance to witness nature in a way that few ever can, and I think it will translate well to Blu-ray. This will be something to watch on your biggest screen with your best playback system when it does become available for home viewing. And if you can catch it in the theaters, check the movie listing for HFR (high frame rate) to see it at 48 frames per second.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett is a bit of a Renaissance man (designer, artist, writer, director, and actor) living
in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats, Bruno and Roxy. Most recently, he was
production designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed
Tanner
. Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an 
original
musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper, which had a developmental reading last year starring Tony
Award-winner Alice Ripley. He is currently designing the set for Salt Marsh Opera 
Company’s
fall production of Pagliacci.

Why Filmmaker Mode Matters

This week, at an event in Los Angeles, movie director Rian Johnson (Brick, LooperThe Last Jedi), introduced a new feature called Filmmaker Mode, which will appear on select TVs beginning in 2020. This might sound strikingly similar to pictures modes you already have on your TV, which go by names like “Cinema” or “Movie.” So what makes this different? “If you like movies,” Johnson said, “then Filmmaker Mode will make movies not look like poo poo.” Those are awfully big words. But, as it turns out, this new mode is actually a very simple enhancement.

 

Every TV already comes with all kinds of modes that have an impact—sometimes negative—on the picture. You might remember that at the end of 2018, Tom Cruise took to Twitter to post a video about the evils of motion smoothing, sometimes 

referred to as “The Soap Opera Effect.” This technology, which is also known as “motion interpolation” or “motion-compensated frame interpolation,” has been around for years, although it’s usually labeled with some slick marketing term on your TV such as “Auto Motion Plus,” “Clear Motion Rate,” “Action Smoothing,”  “Smooth Motion Effect,”  “MotionFlow,” “ClearScan,” or “TruMotion.” All of these terms really refer to the same thing: The process

of artificially creating frames of video and inserting them in between existing frames in your favorite movies or TV shows in order to reduce motion blur.

 

Reviewers, directors, cinematographers, editors, and cinephiles alike all urge the viewing public to turn off motion smoothing—which is often on by default—and other extra processing layered on by display manufacturers, and to instead set their displays to a basic set of standards meant to reproduce a movie as accurately as possible. But telling people how to defeat the various modes can be difficult and confusing given the kind of inconsistent jargon described above. Even as someone who reviews TVs, I would have to look up “ClearScan” and what it does to know whether I want it on or off. It sounds more like a TSA screening machine than a kind of picture processing.

 

Creatives and enthusiasts have been pushing to keep extra processing out of watching movies at home for as long as there’s been extra processing. But Filmmaker Mode is different, because all of the various forces—including the movie creators, the studios, and the display manufacturers—are all pushing together.

 

Simply put, Filmmaker Mode preserves the aspect ratio, frame rate, and color of the movie or TV show you’re watching so they match what was seen on the reference monitors used for post production as closely as possible. To do this, it sets the 

Why Filmmaker Mode Matters

correct color temperature on your display, turns off motion smoothing and other processing like sharpness and noise reduction, and makes sure the image isn’t stretched out.

 

It’s not yet clear how this will be implemented for the user, but, based on what was said at the UHD Alliance

event, it will likely be either a dedicated button on the display’s remote or—and this would be ideal—included in the metadata of a disc, stream, or download, so the display would turn on Filmmaker Mode (in other words, turn off all the extra junk) automatically.

 

Filmmaker Mode has been endorsed by Warner Bros., NBCUniversal, Amazon Prime, Vizio, Panasonic, LG, and dozens of household-name movie directors, including Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. Vizio has announced that its 2020 line of smart TVs will include the new mode, and there are rumors that manufacturers are looking into adding it to existing displays through firmware updates. If you’re wondering how that’s possible, most modern UHD/HDR TVs can already do all of the things Filmmaker Mode does—but only if you’re willing to dig through all the menus and dial in a dozen or more settings.

 

The biggest issue facing Filmmaker Mode won’t be getting manufacturers to include it with their products. Similar modes already exist, such as the Netflix Calibrated Mode on Sony displays. The challenge will be educating the public about why they should care enough to push this button (which is why the idea of it being included in metadata is so enticing to me). Or maybe Maverick can post some more videos on Twitter about the Filmmaker Mode button to let people know it’s there.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin (2019)

Has any studio mastered the art of the re-release better than Disney? Between their “vault,” where films would disappear from circulation for years, to Diamond Collection disc re-releases with new bonus features, to newly re-mastered 4K Ultra HD titles, Disney knows how to wring the most dollars from its catalog of titles. One of its most successful re-release strategies in recent years is remaking hit animated films into live-action titles. Recent examples include Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), Aladdin (2019), and the wildly successful The Lion King (2019).

 

While admittedly a huge Disney fan, I was skeptical about Aladdin, and skipped the theatrical release. I was a big fan of Robin Williams’ role as the genie from the 1992 original animated version, and I thought that anyone trying to fill his manic-comic shoes would just sully the role. Also, I’m equally not a Will Smith fan (though I am optimistic about his upcoming Gemini Man . . .), so it just seemed to be piling on. But when the movie dropped this week at the Kaleidescape Store—a full two weeks before the disc release—it seemed like the perfect opportunity to rub the lamp.

 

While not germane to this review, one thought I had as I purchased this movie was, “Will this be the final Disney movie I actually buy?” With Disney’s new streaming service imminently approaching, and with the studio’s entire catalog supposedly being available in the highest resolution possible (4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos) for a mere $6.99 a month, is the company going to be cutting off its faithful disc buyers in the process? For little more than the price of Aladdin, I could get six months of Disney’s entire catalog. Food for thought . . .

 

If you’re familiar with the 1992 movie, then you know all the plot points of this re-telling. “Street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) wanders the streets and alleys of Agrabah, living by stealing what he and his monkey, Abu, need to survive. One day he stumbles across Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who is bored with her life in the castle and wanders the streets in disguise, and he becomes smitten. Aladdin is tricked into going into the Cave of Wonder to retrieve a magic lamp by the Sultan’s evil counselor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Inside, he discovers a magic carpet and a lamp that causes the Genie (Will Smith) to appear, granting him three wishes. Aladdin uses his wishes to become a prince to win Jasmine’s heart, but he must contend with Jafar, who has his own nefarious plans for the lamp.

 

Two things made the original Aladdin so successful: The soundtrack and Williams’ performance as Genie. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “A Whole New World,” and all of the hits—including “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali”—are featured here.

 

While Williams’ performance was widely praised and loved, some at the time criticized it because his jokes were too current and thought not to be timeless. (How wrong they were!) As skeptical as I was about Smith, he manages to make the Genie his own, and he does a lot to carry the film and add much-needed fun and humor—the film feels far more like a drama until Genie arrives. Smith’s Genie is far more subtle than Williams’, and his performance works very well here. Of course, Smith’s Fresh Prince musical background also serves him quite well during the musical numbers.

 

Aladdin reminded me a lot of a musical, with many of the song lyrics delivered in a more dialogue manner to drive the story as opposed to just straight singing. Also, they did a nice job of making the characters more believable, especially the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who comes across as a bumbling idiot for most of the animated film. Disney has also proved itself quite adept at making digital animals, and both Abu and Rajah (Jasmine’s Bengal tiger) appear quite realistic. This live-action version is also 38 minutes longer than the animated one, giving the story a bit more room to develop.

 

Filmed in ARRIRAW at 2.8 and 3.4K, I felt like Aladdin rarely bristled with as much detail as I’ve seen from other modern blockbusters. Not to say that the video doesn’t look good or feature detail, with sharp-edged images. It’s more like I often wasn’t seeing that ultra-pixel micro-level detail that some full-4K Digital Intermediates can resolve. Even with that nit, there 

are many closeups where you can examine the threads and ornate stitching in the costumes, or the texture in walls and rocks.

 

The HDR image does a lot to help the night and dark scenes, such as the city lights when flying over Agrabah on the magic carpet or the dark interior of the Cave of Wonders. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, with no noise. Golds and jewels shimmer and sparkle with colors that leap off the screen, as do fireworks and the many brightly colored costumes, specifically Genie’s rich, deep purple. This is a very colorful film featuring Bollywood-esque costume design, and the images are definitely bright and punchy, but never at the expense of skin tones. (Well, except the Genie, who is cerulean for much of the film.)

 

The Dolby Atmos audio mix feels mostly restrained, with the vast majority of audio presented from the front of the room. Some ambient sounds and the music are mixed up into the front height channels to add spaciousness, but most of the film is heavily focused to the screen. There are some scenes where the overhead speakers are called in to good effect, such as the Genie flying around the room, zipping front and back and swirling about in the Cave of Wonders, or Iago, the bright red macaw (not voiced here by Gilbert Godfrey, which just seems wrong), flying around, and some nice echoes that bounce off the walls in the Cave. The  

Aladdin (2019)

whole “Never Had a Friend Like Me” sequence is a great example of the film’s more dynamic audio moments. But for most of the film, the sound mixers definitely err on the side of subtlety, as opposed to looking for opportunities to get aggressive and push the sonic boundaries. Bass is mostly reserved throughout, but the sub channel is called into play nicely when the action calls for it. Fortunately, for a movie where singing and talking are key, dialogue is always clear and intelligible.

 

I enjoyed Aladdin much more than I thought I would, and it is a film I can see returning to. Also, with a Common Sense Media rating of 8+, Aladdin is a movie you can absolutely enjoy with family members of all ages.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.