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Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

If your name happens to be Alexa—as was the name of my waitress the other day—you have my sympathies. (If your name is OK Google, you probably don’t need sympathy. You need a good family therapist.) You can’t blame your parents for naming you Alexa—unless you were born after Amazon introduced the Echo in 2014.

How could anyone have predicted how absurdly popular Amazon’s Alexa voice-control service would become? Four years ago, I never imagined there’d be such a superfluity of smart devices that are “Compatible with Alexa”—thermostats, ceiling fans, robot vacuum cleaners, light switches, microwave ovens, dishwashers, humidifiers/essential-oil diffusers, washers and dryers, door locks, salt shakers, and I’m not even close to being finished yet.

 

I think I can predict that, unlike 3D, voice control isn’t going to be a fad that quickly loses its popularity and then, as the years pass, barely clings to life as a glossed-over line item on a features/specification list. I have my doubts about the staying power of an Alexa-compatible smart salt dispenser with built-in mood lighting and Bluetooth speaker (and, no, I’m not making that up). But I’m positive that, in general, voice control is here to stay.

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

the SMALT smart salt dispenser

Voice-recognition technology will continue to improve, and the entire virtual assistant experience will get better—whether you’re using Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or an up-and-coming open-source voice assistant like Mycroft AI. While that’s all fine and dandy, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right and nifty. Although we’re not the only creatures on this planet

that use tools, our species definitely relies on tools more than any of the others. I imagine one of our distant ancestors, an industrious Australopithecus afarensis dude, bashed a rock (or somebody’s head) with another rock, turned to the guy next to him, and grunted, “Always use the right tool for the right job.” Closer to our time, another person—

most likely a Minoan or a Roman—uttered the maxim, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (As far as “Don’t be a tool” goes, I have no idea when that pithy nugget of advice became a thing.)

 

As magical as it may seem, voice control is nothing more than one more tool in our technology toolbox. It’s in there next to the infrared remote control, the joystick, the smartphone app, and the Star Wars Talking Darth Vader Clapper. It’s a good tool, 

too. But because it’s new, there’s an irresistible urge for companies to include voice-control capabilities in devices that have no need for them—even when voice control makes using the gadget more difficult. That’s the sort of user experience that can turn a person against voice control in general, especially if it’s the user’s first exposure to it.

 

I understand the urge to incorporate voice control into everything. I’ve had a relatively good experience with the Alexa devices (mostly Echoes), and it can easily fool you into thinking of it as the Swiss Army Knife of user interfaces. A couple of frustratingly one-sided “conversations” with Alexa—involving not waking up, not understanding a command, being told “Hmmm, I’m not sure right now,” getting a response to a totally random request, and having Alexa respond to the TV—will quickly disabuse you of that notion. (One time I asked Alexa to play “The world’s most relaxing song”—and, yes, there is such a thing. Alexa’s response was to play a long recording of a vuvuzela at max volume.)

 

Although voice control is a great tool for many tasks, it’s not the right tool for every job. It’s not even the right tool for most jobs. Sometimes it’s easier to use an app on your phone. At other times, it’s by far more intuitive and faster to use a remote control. Sometimes, shockingly, it’s actually best to use the buttons on the front panel.

 

Rather than a being a one-size-fits-all tool, voice control is more of a hammer whose usefulness is limited to working with “nails” made up of very specific words and phrases that are recognized by the controller. No matter how good 

natural-language processing eventually becomes, there will always be tasks for which it will be easier, faster, or less aggravating to accomplish by some manner other than speaking.

 

Voice control is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

The Chef Show

The Chef Show

The Chef Show is pretty much definitive proof that Netflix’ recommendation algorithms can’t quite figure me out. I’ll watch pretty much any food show the service slings in my direction, no matter the sub-genre. Food as culture? Gimme. Food as process? I’m taking notes. Food as an excuse to travel? Love every minute of it. Food as social glue? That may well be my favorite food sub-genre of all.

 

When you get right down to it, The Chef Show is all of those things in some sense, but it’s not really any of them at its heart. But getting to the gooey center of what this series actually is proves to be difficult. Which may be why Netflix didn’t shove it

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down my throat from the time it dropped back in June of this year, despite the fact that I’m its prime audience. 

 

To get to the sense of what I mean, consider a scene in the first episode, in which Gwyneth Paltrow, sort of befuddled, it seems, by what’s going on, asks, “What is this TV show for?” To which its hosts, Jon Favreau and Roy Choi sort of shrug and say, “We don’t know. Nobody knows. We just started filming.”

 

Favreau and Choi, of course, worked together on the 2014 indie film Chef, and The Chef Show at times feels like an excuse for the duo to recreate the magic of that amazing 

film without making a pointless sequel. Instead, they simply hang out with their friends and cook and chat. And since their friends happen to be people like Paltrow, Robert Rodriguez, and Robert Downey, Jr., you’ll see a good number of celebrity faces. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a celebrity showcase.

 

But there I go again, trying to define The Chef Show by telling you what it’s not, rather than what it is. I think the reason for that is that the series never really figures out for itself what it wants to be. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it refuses 

to be forced into some preconceived box, and instead just does its own thing. There’s no template, no real structure, no actual recurring elements aside from the cute stop-motion animated interstitials that serve to segue between segments.

 

You kind of get the sense the footage that comprises the show—which was captured over the course of three years and not even pitched to Netflix until a season’s worth of shows had 

The Chef Show

been assembled from it—could have just as easily been dropped on YouTube five or 10 or 30 minutes at a time, a fact reflected in the lack of HDR, despite the 4K presentation.

 

That may sound like a diss on my part, but nothing could be further from the truth. The freeform, unstructured, internet-y nature of the show is what I love about it most. Ultimately, it’s something of a metaphor for Favreau and Choi’s approach to cooking. One phrase that pops up time and time again when the two are hashing out new dishes is, “Sure, why not?” There’s no real recipe, just an understanding of what makes food tastes good, and a desire to mix things up and see what works.

 

At any rate, the result of all this experimentation is that, on the one hand, The Chef Show is probably the most food-like food show of any I’ve seen. And on the other hand, it’s not really about food at all. One gets the sense that if Favreau and Choi shared a love of cars, this would be a car show. If they had bonded over sailing, it would be a sailing show. In the end, their love for one another is really the glue that holds this little experiment together, and I think that gives them the liberty to break some rules.

The Chef Show

To give you one example of the rules they break: Early in the series the duo attempts to make beignets from a box of Cafe Du Monde mix, only to fail spectacularly and realize after the fact that they’ve used an expired mix. In most food shows, that would have been left on the cutting-room floor. In The Chef Show, it’s kind of the point, because that shared experience is so much more important than the results of their efforts.

 

I’m reminded of the big Sunday dinners my meemaw (for you Yankees in the audience, that’s southern for “grandmother”) used to make when I was a kid. The entire family would come together after church and stuff our faces on some of the best country cooking to ever cross my palate, then unbutton our pants and talk about the week for a few hours before going home for a nap.

 

It wasn’t until I was much older and my meemaw had died that I realized something: As much as those gigantic weekly meals were the superficial excuse for our Sunday gatherings, and as much as we still sit around and reminisce about her mashed potatoes and fried chicken livers and purple-hull peas, the food was never the point. For as much as she slaved over a stove every Sunday to feed 10 to 15 people, all of that cooking was really just an excuse to bring together the people she loved most in the world.

 

The Chef Show is pretty much exactly that. The delicious-looking dishes are just the pretense. The process is just a necessity, no matter how much love and mindfulness they pour into it. The real magic of this show is in the conversations—the ones that revolve around art and filmmaking and family as much as the ones that revolve around food—and if there were the faintest whiff of inauthenticity to any of it, it just wouldn’t work on any level.

 

But work it does. Brilliantly so. So much so that another “volume” of episodes is slated to drop in mid-September, barely three months after the first batch of eight. And I can say this for certain: I won’t be late to the party this time. I’m looking forward to Volume Two with a level of anticipation normally reserved for Star Wars movies and new episodes of Critical Role.

 

If anything, though, it makes me wonder what other little gems exist in the Netflix catalog, just sitting there waiting to be my new favorite thing, but failing to pop up on my radar because they don’t necessarily fit into the service’s A.I.-driven algorithm, designed to hack my viewing habits into component parts that can be used to predict what formula will appeal to me next.

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.

Men in Black: International

Men in Black: International

Released this past summer, Men in Black: International (MiB:I, going forward) is the fourth film in the MiB franchise, but actually serves more as a reboot/spinoff as opposed to an actual film in the series. The movie was released on digital in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack from Kaleidescape on August 20, well ahead of its disc release on September 3.

 

Instead of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprising their roles from the original trilogy, MiB:I offers essentially an entirely new cast in the form of Chris Hemsworth (Agent H), Tessa Thompson (Agent M), and Liam Neeson (Agent High T). The only real continuity in actors is Emma Thompson reprising her role of Agent O from MiB: 3 and Tim Blaney returning to voice Frank the Pug in one brief scene. (There is a “blink and miss it” painting shown in a boardroom that appears to feature Smith and Jones in battle, the only actual nod to their characters.)

 

Now, this is not to say that spinoffs can’t be successful and work on their own. 20th Century Fox did a great job with Wolverine’s character from the X-Men series, the new Creed films have done a fantastic job of lighting new fire and continuing the Rocky saga, and Disney/Lucasfilm will be giving us new tales from the Star Wars universe long into the foreseeable future. But one of the things that makes a spinoff work is when the new film offers a solid connection to the rest of the series, and this is where MiB:I fails. And, unfortunately, it just isn’t a strong enough film to be able to stand on its own.

 

Still present are the memory-wiping neuralyzers, the ubiquitous black suits and ties, Rayban sunglasses, and Hamilton Ventura watches, advanced alien weaponry, modified vehicles, and a plethora of various alien creatures wandering around intent on reeking planetary havoc. But what seems to be missing is the actual fun found in the first films, with many scenes feeling like retreads.

 

Largely this is because the first three films gave us great chemistry and humor by juxtaposing the young and brash Smith against the old and grumpy Jones, while here the relationship between Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson just doesn’t work on the same level. While the interaction and repartee between these two is the highpoint of the film—which is actually the fourth time these actors have shared screen time (previously in Thor: Ragnorak and both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame)—they just aren’t given enough to work with to carry it solely on their own. Even Hemsworth, who has shown great comic ability in his role as Thor, feels a bit forced here.

 

According to Wikipedia, the film had a “troubled production,” with clashes between the director and producer, resulting in multiple rewrites and edits, and it comes across a bit meandering and uninspired, and frankly left me feeling a bit like I’d been neuralyzed afterwards, unable to really recall any of specific points the following day.

 

What isn’t missing is a quality audio and video production, something for which Sony has come to be known for in its home releases. While filmed in a combination of ARRIRAW 3.4 and 6.5K, this is taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-laden films. Even still, the video quality is terrific throughout, with tons of detail. Images are

always sharp and clear, both in closeups and wide shots. Blacks—of which there are a lot—are always deep, clean, and noise-free. Images like black ties against black jackets with black pocket squares are clearly visible.

 

HDR is also used to good effect throughout, pumping the bright lights, while keeping the dark night sky and the agents’ uniforms in deep black. The opening shot of the Eiffel Tower is a great example, with the Tower brightly illuminated against the black Paris night. The MiB offices are also brightly lit in white, with many colorful screens, and the HDR presentation really makes them pop. The Alien Twins, who bristle with energy, also benefit from HDR’s added brightness and color space, especially during their first fight with H and M.

 

Equally impressive is the Dolby Atmos soundmix, which is incredibly dynamic and immersive. The sound designers take every opportunity to expand the audio around the room and overhead, and this is a film that offers the kind of wow-factor home theater owners crave. There is also a ton of bass energy when appropriate, with explosions generating loads of ultra-low frequency that you’ll feel in your chest. Dialogue is also well recorded, clean, and clearly understandable even at reference-volume playback.

Men in Black: International

And while the big action scenes definitely benefit from the expanded and aggressive audio mix, quieter scenes also have a lot of ambient effects to capture the onscreen atmosphere. There were several instances where I turned around to investigate a sound behind me, thinking it was our cat or my daughter, when it was some audio effect.

 

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 22%, MiB:I likely isn’t going to be the best film you see this year, though my 12-year-old really enjoyed it. However, what it lacks in story, it more than makes up for in effects and bombast, and looks and sounds fantastic while doing it.

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.

Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?

Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?

Refik Anadol’s data sculpture Melting Memories

This all started as a side conversation with Cory Reistad, the head of SAV Digital Environments in Bozeman, Montana. We were discussing emerging trends in luxury home entertainment, and Cory mentioned that his company is getting an increasing number of requests for video-wall installations so people can display unique, commissioned works of video art

in their homes.

 

Intrigued, I reached out to a number of people I trust to know a lot more about something like this than I do. Some of them were well aware of, and up to speed on, the whole “art wall” thing and excited about the possibilities. Some of them had no idea what I was talking about. That suggested that this is a bona fide trend that hasn’t yet achieved broad awareness even among the luxury-tech cognoscenti.

 

What follows can’t really be called an introduction to art walls—it’s more like some random notes pointing in their general direction. But I wanted to send out an early missive as I do my due diligence and we, as a site, begin to wrap our arms around the phenomenon.

 

It would probably be a good idea to show you what I’m talking about. A bunch of website loops and Vimeo clips obviously can’t begin to convey the impact of these installations, but they can at least give you a taste of what they’re all about.

First up, a projector-driven installation Barco did at the the Carrières de Lumières, a quarry-based exhibition space in Provence, France. (Early evidence suggests Barco has been largely responsible for defining, promoting, and facilitating the art-wall category—but we’ll circle back to all that in later posts.)

Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?

Next, two works by Refik Anadol. I was steered to these by Barco Residential managing director Tim Sinnaeve, who has been tremendously generous and patient about addressing my ignorant queries and bringing me up to speed. The first is Melting Memories, a 20 x 16.7-foot LED video wall of “data sculptures” based on brain-wave activity associated with memory:

The second is “Wind of Boston,” a series of video paintings that feed off from a one-year set of meteorological data gleaned from Logan Airport:

Art walls seem to be catching on for a number of reasons. Projectors are brighter, projection screens are better at rejecting ambient light, and technology like MicroLED is taking hold that will allow you to create practically any size screen out of flat-panel video displays. Also, people are finally starting to think of video screens less as eyesores and more as design opportunities. Third—although this might just be wishful thinking on my part—the proliferation of content via streaming might be creating genre burnout, causing people to reject cookie-cutter mass-market diversions for more meaningful work. Or maybe they’re just taking video works more seriously as art.

 

Tim Sinnaeve discourages using the phrase “art wall,” by the way, in favor of “Architectural Digital Canvas,” while referring to the content itself as “New Media Art.” I can see the need for the more accurate nomenclature—there’s no reason, for instance, why you can’t have video images on the ceiling or the floor as well as the wall—but “art wall” seems like the more intuitive term, at least as we begin to explore the trend.

 

Tim pointed out something that was kind of an epiphany for me, since it suggests that these installations are part of a larger paradigm shift in luxury tech. Art walls deliberately try to avoid the connotations of the 16:9 aspect ratio, which we associate with computer monitors, movies, TV shows, and gaming, so the viewer will more readily embrace the art work on its own terms. The idea of freeing screens from the tyranny of the proscenium could clear the way for other innovative tech-driven art/entertainment experiences in the home, again, helping to break the stranglehold of mass-produced genre-driven melodrama. It could also finally provide a way for architects and designers, who tend to look askance at the man cave and its descendants, to embrace cutting-edge video tech in the home.

 

Like I said—just a bunch of random notes as we begin to look into a development well worth checking out.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Old-Fashioned Clicker Gets a Facelift

The Old-Fashioned Clicker Gets a Facelift

the Savant Pro Remote remote control

Despite all the advances in home technology, I still like channel surfing—the old-fashioned way—by pressing buttons on a handheld remote control. It’s mindless work. Just keep pressing to scroll through the guide and pop into a program when something catches my eye.

 

A remote control might seem a bit behind the times when an Amazon Echo speaker is standing there listening to your every beck and call, but I like my trusty couch companion. I don’t need to get up from my comfy seat or shout at some inanimate

object. I can just lay back and peck at a few buttons. I know my remote “hears” me. As for that smart speaker, like a petulant teenager, it seems to ignore me no matter how much I yell.

 

Remote controls are more than just channel-surfing tools, though. They’ve gotten pretty darn sophisticated and smart over the years. Besides busting them out when you want to find a movie on Netflix, you can peer at their built-in touchscreens to see and control what’s happening throughout your home.

 

Sometimes, you can teach the remote a few new simple

tricks. But if you’d like to press its buttons to operate lights, thermostats, AV equipment, security systems, garage-door openers, and a host of other devices, it’s best to get a professional integrator involved. He has the expertise to outfit your home with all the components necessary for complete, easy control. He’ll also likely recommend that you use wall-mounted

keypads, touchscreens, and your voice to supervise systems around your home. These methods are sexy and sophisticated, but the familiarity of a handheld remote can’t be beat.

 

With the help of a home-technology integrator, each button on the remote can be configured to dispatch multiple commands to multiple devices. This “one press does it all” command is commonly referred to as a macro, and it’s amazingly simple yet powerful.  A button labeled “Movie Time,” for example, could be programmed to dim the lights, close the motorized shades, and lock the front door. In

The Old-Fashioned Clicker Gets a Facelift

the Logitech Harmony Elite remote control

seconds, with a bowl of popcorn in your lap, you’ve transformed your living room into a cinema. 

 

Other scenarios can unfold with ease in other areas of your home. “Bedtime” can adjust the thermostats, close the blinds, lock the doors, and set the security system. “Entertain” can turn on your favorite jazz playlist, activate patio lights, and set the lights to showcase artwork on the walls . . . or whatever your heart desires.

 

That’s the beauty of a smart remote that works with other smart devices: The sky is the limit as to what you can do. Heck, you can even use the remote’s built-in screen to see who’s knocking at the front door, peruse your music library, see the current weather report, or monitor the status of your security system. And instead of yelling at a voice-enabled device to turn off the hallway lights or lower the volume of your music system, you can use your “indoor voice” to launch verbal commands through the remote’s built-in microphone. Take that, Alexa!

Lisa Montgomery

With more than 20 years under her belt covering all things electronic for the home, Lisa
Montgomery 
has developed a knack for knowing what types of products and systems
make sense for homeowners looking to update their abodes. When she’s not exploring
innovative ways to introduce technology into homes, Lisa breaks away from the electronics
world on a bike, kayak, or a towel on the beach.

After Life

After Life

If you appreciate a show that grabs you by the hands and pulls you through all the feels in a short amount of time, After Life is for you. Ricky Gervais writes, directs, and stars in this series about a man who has lost his wife to cancer and is trying to find a reason to keep slogging through this life. He can’t bring himself to commit suicide, yet he sees no hope for joy. So he has decided to embrace bitterness and hopelessness as superpowers that allow him to do and say anything. His resulting interactions with the people in his life swing between funny, heartbreaking, wickedly off-color, and even downright sappy. 

 

After Life is British to the core—a quiet little show filled with quirky people talking to each other a lot. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightfully honest and poignant. If you only know Gervais for his more acerbic wit, you might be surprised how unapologetically sentimental he can be at times, and those opposing forces mesh perfectly here. It’s like brewing Kuding to make sweet tea.

After Life

Season One consists of just six 30-minute episodes, so you can easily binge this one in a weekend. Netflix presents the show in Dolby Vision and HDR10, with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. The picture quality through my Apple TV was very good—it’s a clean, nicely detailed image that goes for a natural look, so don’t expect a lot of stylized shots to exploit the HDR. Overall, the improved dynamic range just lends a better sense of realism. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is primarily dialogue through the center channel, with some music filling out the soundstage. Overall, it’s not an AV presentation to show off your system, but it suits the subject matter.

 

I was surprised and perhaps even a bit disappointed to see that a second season of After Life is in the works. This one seemed perfect as a limited-run series—six episodes that tell a complete story, capturing a time of painful transition in someone’s life. But Season One proved to be such a sweet surprise to me that I’m also intrigued to see what the show has in store in its next life.

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.

Musicals Are My Work—Movies Are My Pleasure

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Gerard Alessandrini

Let me introduce myself. My name is Gerard Alessandrini. Although I am a writer/director in theatre (Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton), it’s little known that I am also a movie lover and have even been called an “expert” in many areas of film. One of the reasons I love movies so much is that I don’t work in film, therefore when I see a movie it’s a totally pleasurable experience because it’s never part of my job. In theatre, I am always looking at things with a critical eye and how they relate to my career. For me, movies are just fascinating fun.

 

I love all genres of films. I still purchase discs of films I would like to see and/or keep. Nowadays, most people watch films streaming on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, but if I love a film, I like to have it on hand for repeated viewings. I own a good amount of the Criterion Collection, which sadly is becoming harder and harder to find. Of course, I love high-quality imagery, so I have been buying many Blu-rays recently. Here’s a story of one of my most recent favorite purchases, The Nun. Not the recent horror film but the French classic from 1965.

 

Nearly 40 years ago when I first came to New York, I wandered into a revival house and saw Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (also known as La Religieuse). The film is 

mesmerizing as well as heartbreaking, and I have remembered it for all these years. During all that time, I have never heard mention of it! I wasn’t even sure if the film even existed and wondered if I had imagined the whole thing!

 

Well, you can imagine how happy I was when I walked into the Union Square Barnes & Noble and saw that Kino Classics DVDs had issued the film on Blu-ray. It’s a stunning restoration in 4K from the original film negative. The liner notes point out that The Nun was originally banned in France, I assume due to its controversial religious subject matter. It was not released in the United States until 1971, and eventually became a landmark of the French New Wave. It’s adapted from Denis Diderot’s

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Anna Karina in Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (La Religieuse)

novel and it follows a rebellious nun who is forced into taking her vows—but this ain’t The Sound of Music. Anna Karina plays the title role and gives an “incandescent” performance. I’m so glad that I didn’t imagine this movie, and that it is finally available.

 

Some of the other Blu-ray discs that I happily purchased are David Lean’s final film, A Passage to India (one of my favorites of his), Safety Last (Harold Lloyd’s classic silent comedy filled with thrills and laughter), and two wonderful musicals, Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and Victor/Victoria, starring Julie Andrews. Both of these film musicals have improved with age.

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Sergei Bonarchuk’s War and Peace (1968)

On the other end of the spectrum, I was excited to buy the foreign-language Russian epic, War and Peace (1968). This is not the 1956 Audrey Hepburn version, but the 422-minute adaptation of the novel by Leo Tolstoy, and it follows the book so closely and completely that you could make the case that Tolstoy wrote the screenplay. This 2K digital restoration is completely in Russian with subtitles, unlike the over-dubbed English version that has been available for years. Experiencing it in Russian, of course, is the way to go. The film is directed by Sergei Bonarchuk, and is so authentic you would think you were looking through a window at the actual history as it took place.

 

Moving on to Westerns, I recently re-discovered another film from my past. When I was a young boy, I remembered seeing Audrey Hepburn in, of all things, a western! Again, the film was so obscure I thought perhaps I had imagined it, but Kino Lorber has issued a wonderful Blu-ray of this film, The Unforgiven, which stars not only Audrey Hepburn, but also Burt Lancaster, Lillian Gish, and, in a fantastic performance, Audie Murphy.

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Audrey Hepburn in John Huston’s The Unforgiven

Today, the casting of Audrey Hepburn in this particular role wouldn’t happen, but it’s fun to see this visually gorgeous western with fine performances and hear the great music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. And if those names aren’t enough to impress you, it’s directed by John Huston. It’s great to own this film on Blu-ray, but it’s even better to see it in a movie theater on the big wide screen, where its mood and power will encompass you.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals. He is best known for
creating & writing the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway. Since 1981, he has
written & directed all the versions of FB in New York, LA, London, and around the world. He
has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk
awards. As a lyricist (and sometimes composer), he has written over a dozen musicals—
including Madame X, The Nutcracker & IScaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of
Moon Over Parador. He’s also written many special-material songs for stars like Angela
Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Tube-Based Home Theater–Why Not?

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

the Zen Ultra 5.1-channel preamplifier

Many audiophiles love tube gear. So why do we almost never see or hear about tube-based home theater systems? If tubes sound so luxuriously great, why aren’t they more common in home entertainment installations?

 

Multichannel-friendly tube products do exist. Decware makes a multichannel tube preamp— the Zen Ultra, a $2,995 six-channel unit that accommodates up to four program sources. Butler Audio offers its five-channel TDB 5150 tube power amplifier ($2,995) and three-channel TDB 3150 (price currently unavailable). For a program source, there are the

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

ModWright Instruments modifications of the Oppo BDP-105 (shown at left), BDP-105D, and UDP-205 Blu-ray players ($2,495 for the base modification only; user must supply player). Note that the players themselves are discontinued—you’ll have to search to find one.

Not exactly a big list.

 

In fact, I couldn’t find any other tube Blu-ray players or multichannel preamps other than out-of-production ModWright mods of other models—the Fosgate Audionics FAP V1 preamp/processor and the Conrad-Johnson MET-1 multichannel preamp. (If

readers know of any other products, please let me know.) There are also Samsung components that have tubes in their amplifiers, but they’re home-theater-in-a-box systems, not luxury AV products.

 

On the other hand, there is a plethora of tube amplifiers (in addition to the Butler Audio models) that could be used in a home theater system. In a 5.1 system, for example, 

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

the tubes in Samsung’s HT-H7750 home-theater-in-a-box system

you could employ stereo amps for the main and the surround channels and a mono or bridged stereo amp for the center channel. Or use five separate mono amps. (This is assuming a powered subwoofer in the system; a passive subwoofer would require another amp to drive it.)

 

So—other than tube amplifiers, there’s an obvious lack of tube home theater components.

 

Also, to use a multichannel tube preamp, you’d want to pair it with a source component with discrete (separate) multichannel audio outputs. You guessed it—there aren’t many around. Other than the ModWright/BDP-105, BDP-105D, and UDP-205 (and other models they’ve offered over the years), there are only a few other (solid-state) Blu-ray players with such outputs, 

like the highly regarded Ultra HD Panasonic DP-UB9000 or the Denon Professional DN-500BD MK II, recommended by Decware head honcho Steve Deckert. (You could use an HDMI-to-multichannel analog converter box with a Blu-ray player or other A/V source without multichannel analog outputs, but such a kludge would almost certainly degrade the sound.)

 

What about those tube amps? There are plenty available. But you’d have to use amps that are powerful enough for home theater, which limits the range of choices. Just picture a phalanx of big, hot, heavy, energy-sucking amps in your home-entertainment room—maybe not something that

would fit into your living environment. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, tube components do require some attention and maintenance.

 

But the main reason tube-based home theater systems are rare is that there’s almost no demand for them. As Stereophile’s Kal Rubinson noted, “There are too few people to make tube home theater components a viable market for manufacturers. Even 10 years ago, when we were in what we might call a ‘golden age’ of home theater popularity, it was hard to find such components or customers who wanted them.”

 

Based on my experience over decades of going to countless audio shows, dealers, and homes, I agree. And there are those who would say, “Why bother? Tubes don’t sound any better than solid-state.”

 

That said, having a tube home theater system is more than just some outrageous idea dreamed up by the editor and myself.

 

While not wanting to reveal sales figures, Decware told me the company sells several of its six-channel tube preamps each year. And between 2010 and 2019, ModWright has sold an average of 100 tube Blu-ray players each year (in addition to

other tube and hybrid components). That’s hundreds of listeners—maybe not McDonald’s numbers, but proof that there are enthusiasts out there who prize tube home theater sound. (How many home theater systems have tube amps? As of now, I don’t have an estimate, if one is even available.)

 

Also, although they’re not multichannel, there are countless stereo tube CD players, DACs (digital-to-analog 

converters), and even phono stages that could be incorporated into home entertainment systems, the $2,999 PrimaLuna Prologue Classic CD player (shown above) being just one example.

 

In fact, there are some who feel you don’t even need multichannel to enjoy spacious home theater sound. A well-set-up 2-channel or 2.1-channel system (two speakers and a subwoofer) can offer a compelling listening experience, maybe even fooling listeners into thinking they’re hearing surround sound. And there’s a wide variety of tube stereo components out there with which to create such a system.

 

Certainly, most people are going to go with a standard home-entertainment installation. Yet if you want to experience some sonic tube flavor in your system, it might be an uncommon option—but it’s a viable one.

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.

Cineluxe Talks To Paradise Theater’s Sam Cavitt

A sampling of Sam Cavitt’s theaters, showing the wide variety of his work

Lisa Montgomery recently talked to Paradise Theater‘s Sam Cavitt about his advocacy for no-compromise high-performance home theaters in an age of “good enough” entertainment spaces. As you can read in Sam’s “A Great Home Theater is Like Fine Wine,” he feels that the move toward non-dedicated spaces is keeping people from appreciating the extraordinary playback quality contemporary gear can achieve. Sam further develops that theme in his conversation with Lisa, while also discussing the true definition of “luxury.”

—Ed.

How has the perception of home theater changed over the years?

Today, when I tell someone my company designs home theaters, it’s likely they think I’m talking about as little as a single soundbar-style speaker and a big-screen TV in the family room. Home theater has become such a generic term and the products so seriously commoditized that it’s lost much of its significance. People no longer look at home theater as what it can be—what it can bring to their lives—but instead focus on how conveniently and affordably it can be added to a home. Building a special space for the enjoyment of movie viewing is often deemed to be unnecessary.

 

It sounds like home theater has become a more mainstream amenity instead of a luxury item. Is this a bad thing?

If you mean the difference between a commodity and luxury item, the answer is yes. Today the word “luxury” is misinterpreted. The true definition of luxury is something that is so clearly superior to alternatives due to quality of materials,

Sam Cavitt Interview

Sam Cavitt

workmanship, and design that it is inherently of a greater value; whereas a commodity is something that is only differentiated by low price.  Which would you prefer?

 

While mass-market home theaters may have exposed more people to the concept of home theater, it devalues the art, craftsmanship, and difference inherent in a genuine, state-of-the-art private cinema that’s been designed expressly for movie viewing. The general public isn’t being shown the differences between the experiences you get from a home theater “kit” versus the bespoke private cinemas we provide.

 

I notice that you’ve been referring to home theaters as private home cinemas. Is this intentional?

Yes. The level of engineering and design that goes into the theaters we create for our clientele is so many levels above and the results so substantially different from what you can get from “off the shelf” alternatives that we must be differentiated from what is commonly called home theater. The elements of a theater we think are vitally important simply can’t be achieved through easy-does-it 

types of approaches. We want to set ourselves apart as “cinema sommeliers,” an organization that helps our clientele understand and appreciate the differences we offer. One way to do this is to stop referring to our completed projects as home theaters and instead refer to them as “private cinemas.”

 

As a cinema sommelier, what level of service can clients expect to receive?

Like a wine sommelier imparts their knowledge to help each client select the perfect wine pairing, as cinema sommeliers, we help our clients understand the value of improved sound quality, video quality, acoustics, and aesthetics of a space, the differences between a great private cinema and an out-of-the-box home theater. We can identify the specific elements—from a room’s geometry and sonic signature to the expectations of those who will be enjoying it—to enable us to transform the space into something that’s truly amazing.

 

In our industry, most home theater specialists fail to identify and promote the value of what they do for their clientele. We feel home theaters have become a pleasure unexploited. I’ve made it my personal mission to spread the word to the public that it’s possible to have something great, that it is worthy of their consideration to acquire a private cinema that will enhance their enjoyment and that they can share with those they love—similar to what people now do with fine art, personal wine cellars, gourmet kitchens, and so on.

 

How does Paradise Theater handle the actual design and installation of the elements that make up a private home cinema?

We provide comprehensive private cinema design and engineering, including design of what we call the chassis or how a room is built, acoustical engineering, system specification, interior design services, and full documentation to support the build-out of the space as well as quality control and performance verification throughout the construction process. What we

don’t do is sell equipment. We leave that to the many well-qualified integration companies we partner with on projects. This allows us to focus on our core competency—ensuring that each phase of the project is completed to perfection. We are like an architect who leads the construction of a home, but providing complete quality assurance for private home theaters. From the first glimmer of an idea to the final experience, we handle the entire process from A to Z.

 

Your projects represent the upper echelon of home theater design. What can potential customers expect from Paradise Theater that they can’t get elsewhere?
Every theater we create is bespoke—there are no

cookie-cutter theaters. Each one is purposely designed to the specific objectives and desires of the client. The reason Paradise Theater exists is its commitment to excellence. Other firms might talk about “how” they do theaters and “what” they do to create theaters, but we focus on the “why.” Why do we create home theaters? Because creating something excellent is the basis of everything we do. It’s in our DNA—our raison d’être.

 

Given the high-end nature of your theaters, your target customers are those with the disposable incomes to afford them. What is it that inspires this group of consumers to invest in a private cinema designed by Paradise Theater?

The love of finer things. Paradise Theater clients are the same people who buy fine art and luxury automobiles. They are investing in things they love. We position a home theater the same way as any other luxury item—people should have one because they love movies, but even more so for the love of having an environment that lets them connect with friends and family and create unforgettable moments. We want our theaters to bring people together, share special experiences, and connect.

 

Have any of your clients found that your theaters have, in fact, enhanced their lives in some significant way?

Two top executives who were previous clients had such busy lives that they told us that they had never watched a movie together. After we created a private home cinema for them, movie night became a regular part of their personal and social lives—it was game-changing for them.

With more than 20 years under her belt covering all things electronic for the home, Lisa
Montgomery 
has developed a knack for knowing what types of products and systems
make sense for homeowners looking to update their abodes. When she’s not exploring
innovative ways to introduce technology into homes, Lisa breaks away from the electronics
world on a bike, kayak, or a towel on the beach.

Air Force One

Air Force One

Here we are with another classic Sony Pictures Home Entertainment film getting the 20-year-plus 4K HDR makeover—and I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of Air Force One.

 

Sony gave the film a full 4K HDR restoration from the original 35mm print, along with retooling the soundtrack for a dynamic new Dolby Atmos mix. While it was released on 4K Blu-ray disc last November, the new 4K HDR version recently arrived at the Kaleidescape Store. Because I already owned the film on Blu-ray, I was able to upgrade to the 4K HDR version for only $11.99, making it an easy decision.

 

It’s hard to think of another actor who would have been more perfectly suited to play President James Marshall than Harrison Ford, and the film largely succeeds because of his likability and believability, essentially being the type of commander-in-chief everyone could get behind.

 

When the film came out in 1997, we were already well familiar with Ford in the role of leading-man action star from such films as the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, The Fugitive, and Blade Runner. More appropriately, Ford had also taken over the mantle of portraying Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Clancy fans will know that as Ryan’s story arc progresses, he eventually moves up the ranks to become President of the United States, so in some ways you could consider AF1 a not-so-distant relative to the Clancy stories.

 

Besides his physicality, Ford was the right age to still be believable as someone capable of holding his own in a scuffle, and had the gravitas to pull off the role of commander-in-chief in the non-fight scenes. He was also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, Glenn Close, and Gary Oldman as ultra-loyalist Russian baddy, Ivan Korshunov.

 

The film opens with special forces parachuting into a compound to capture Kazakhstan dictator General Alexander Radek (Jürgen Prochnow) in a nighttime raid, and then cuts to a banquet in Moscow where President Marshall declares the US’s new “zero-tolerance” policy toward terrorism. He and his family (and the presidential entourage) then board Air Force One to return to the States, but during the flight, a group of terrorists loyal to Radek and led by Korshunov take over the plane, killing many of the Secret Service detail aboard. Instead of escaping the plane in a specially designed pod, President Marshall stays aboard trying to use his ex-military skills to save the hostages and retake the plane.

 

This all happens in roughly the first 20 minutes, leaving a lot of time to build drama and play out the cat-and-mouse hunt aboard the plane as well as the political turmoil back in Washington as the assembled cabinet tries to come to terms with the fact that the President is possibly dead along with having a hijacked AF1 full of high-value passengers quickly flying its way back toward enemy territory.

 

Video quality is greatly improved throughout, with sharp and defined edges. Closeups especially benefit from the restoration, clearly revealing more details, such as individual strands of hair. Overall the film has a nice layer of cleanness to the print,

Air Force One

The same shot from Air Force One, from the Blu-ray version (above)
and the 4K HDR version (below)

Air Force One

making this the best AF1 has looked by far.

 

There was definitely a regrading of the color for this release, which is especially noticeable in the opening scenes. In the Blu-ray version, the sky is a dusky blueish purple, with some shots looking near daytime bright—not a time when you’d do an airborne assault on a compound. In the new HDR version, the sky is much darker, with the action clearly taking place at night, making it more believable.

 

While they didn’t push the HDR grading too aggressively, it’s definitely used to nice effect to 

improve images overall, which results in the film having greater depth and pop than the Blu-ray version. Many scenes benefit from the added pop of brightness and expanded white level and shadow detail.

 

Notice the detail in the parachute canopy in the opening raid compared to how blown out the white levels are in the Blu-ray version, or the detail in the shadows under AF1 and around the MOCKBA sign as the Presidential party is boarding to leave Moscow. You also get far more impact from the displays and sensors in the plane’s communications room, the bright lights around Moscow at night, and the jet’s afterburners. And when a big KC-10 tanker explodes, the flames have bright, vivid red-orange colors.

 

But a 20-plus-year-old film will never look as sharp and clean as a modern digital image, and there is some occasional noise and excessive grain, especially in the dark night scenes like the opening parachute attack. Also, some of the visual effects look truly dated and are almost laughable by current standards—for example, as the staffers escape by parachute and the big tumbling crash at the end.

 

As nice as the new video transfer is, the new Dolby Atmos soundmix is the real gem here. They clearly took every opportunity to have fun with the mix, and the results are phenomenal. Years ago—in 1999, I believe—I attended a CEDIA Expo where many manufacturers were using the airplane takeover scene from AF1 as a demo. That meant I got to experience the same scene on many systems, giving me a real sense of how it sounded. Polk Audio and Cinepro built a system designed to deliver realistic, lifelike audio levels, with every speaker having a minimum of 1,000 watts of power sent to it. I can remember 

watching that demo, and even though I’d seen it multiple times already, hearing Korshunov rack the slide on his weapon sounded like he was right next to you, and when he fired the first shot, everyone in the room jumped. The dynamics were so insane, you felt like a gun had gone off right next to you.

 

This new Dolby Atmos mix got me back to that experience.

 

You can hear the difference right from the beginning as the title score swells over the opening credits with far more space and width to the presentation. The score is also gently mixed into the front height speakers to expand the soundstage. The opening commando raid also reveals that this is going to be a fun mix, with shouts, echoes, and gunshots filling the room along with fairly serious LFE engagement from your subwoofer.

 

The sound mixer also uses the speakers to put you into different acoustic environments, such as the President’s opening speech in the Moscow banquet hall, which has tons of ambience and reverb to accurately place you in that acoustic space, and the subtle ambient sounds aboard AF1.

 

Probably nothing benefits from the improved audio more than the F-15 fighter jets

Air Force One

scrambled to protect/escort AF1, which sound absolutely awesome whenever they’re on screen, with their engine sounds mixed at a high and realistic level. The jets go ripping through the room, tearing overhead and to the front of the room with incredibly powerful deep bass you feel in your chest from their afterburners.

 

Air Force One is just a fun popcorn movie that holds up incredibly well 20 years later, and it makes for a terrific evening in your home theater.

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.