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What You Need to Know About Disney+

What You Need to Know About Disney+

The Simpsons will stream exclusively on Disney+

Even if you pay no more than a middling bit of attention to the streaming-video landscape, you likely felt a great disturbance in the Force in the past few months, as if millions of voices cried out and said, “Take my money!” That disruption, of course, has been caused by Disney+, which was met with skepticism when it was originally announced two years ago. (Yours truly called it a “huge mistake,” words I would like to eat with some ginger and a few shavings of fresh wasabi root, if you don’t mind.) But in the time since, numerous announcements about exclusive content and the service’s price structure have turned it from an inconvenient extra bill to a legitimate threat to Netflix.

 

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Disney+, mind you, and probably won’t know until closer to its November 12 launch date. But for now, here’s what we can say about what makes Disney+ different from the competition, and why you should care.

 

1) It’s got the content you want for a price you can’t refuse

If you’re a fan of, well, pretty much anything, chances are good Disney owns a piece of it. It goes without saying that Disney+ will have a large collection of Disney movies (with none of the Vault shenanigans that we’ve come to know and loathe in the home video era), as well as Pixar offerings, to choose from. It’ll also have every Star Wars movie except for The Last 

Jedi and Solo at launch (those are coming in the first year), as well as original Star Wars programming like the new live-action show The Mandalorian and a brand-new season of the highly acclaimed The Clone Wars animated series.

 

Ditto Marvel. The only movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that won’t be available at launch is Avengers: Endgame, which is slated to hit Disney+ in December. That, by the way, gives us some interesting insight into how long it will take new theatrical releases to stream after they’ve been released to home video. Then there’s the mountain of new, Disney+ exclusive MCU programming in the works, including original TV series based on Hawkeye, Vision & Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier, as well as everyone’s favorite bad boy, Loki.

 

Out of the gate, the service will launch with 300 theatrical films, and by the end of the first year we’re promised 500 films and 7,500 episodes’ worth of TV programming. All of that would be worth $6.99 a month even if the service didn’t also include a ton of National Geographic content to boot.

 

 

2) Bundles will sweeten the pot

Disney recently announced that in addition to its main subscription plan for $6.99, you’ll also be able to drop $12.99 on a bundle that includes Disney+, ESPN+, and the ad-supported version of Hulu without live TV. In other words: Pay for two, get one for free.

 

This makes sense, given that Disney now owns a controlling stake in Hulu (with Warner going its own way soon to launch HBO Max, another studio-exclusive streaming service), and seems to be positioning Hulu as the home for its more adult-oriented programming (including former Fox properties like Deadpool, as well as more mature original shows).

 

Interestingly, that $12.99 price point is also exactly what Netflix charges for its most basic, HD-only subscription tier. That can’t be a coincidence.

 

 

3) Disney isn’t skimping on AV quality

The company has already made some reassuring statements about Disney+ supporting 4K video and HDR. While we don’t know what sort of compression codecs the service will employ, that promise means it’s using HEVC at a minimum. In other words, Disney+ will be in the top tier of streaming providers from a video-quality perspective.

 

Here’s what we don’t know, though: Will you be able to access 4K HDR video for the aforementioned $6.99 subscription price? Netflix charges for 4K HDR. Amazon doesn’t. So, it’s difficult to guess.

 

What’s more, we also don’t know if opting for the Disney+/Hulu/EPSN+ bundle will force you into accessing all three services from one app. If that app is Hulu, that could also be bad news in terms of video quality. Although Hulu recently re-introduced support for 4K video, it doesn’t

offer HDR, which is a bummer since dynamic range has much more impact on picture quality than pixel count.

 

In other words, if you care about video performance, it may be that you’ll need to skip the bundle and just subscribe to Disney+ directly. But again, nobody knows for sure just yet.

 

 

4) They seem to have solved the biggest problem with most streaming services—the user interface

Here’s a fun experiment for you bored masochists in the audience: Load up Netflix and attempt to find all of the existing Netflix-original (but Disney-financed) Marvel TV shows in one place. This is a little easier if you remember the names of all those series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Defenders). But search instead for, say, “Marvel,” and you end up with a mess of unrelated content with no clear indication of which shows exist in the same continuity. (Particularly troubling for nerds, you’ll also find a lot of cartoons based on D.C. Comics properties.)

 

Netflix isn’t alone in this, of course. The user interfaces for all of the major streaming platforms are just terrible.

 

Disney+, by contrast, has developed a user interface that seems to do all the things normal streaming UIs do—track your viewing habits, give you recommendations based on your preferences, spotlight new releases by category, etc.—but it also

curates its content and allows you to hone in on specific universes it owns. Just want to watch some Star Wars but not sure exactly what you’re in the mood for? The Galaxy Far, Far Away will have its own separate section of Disney+. So will Marvel. So will Pixar and NatGeo.

 

If other streaming providers don’t figure out how to do something similar—not 

necessarily segregating their home screens by shared universes, but coming up with some way of streamlining the process of finding something worth watching that matches your current mood—this could be the Number One thing that threatens the competition.

 

 


Add it all together, and it’s really not a question of whether or not you’ll subscribe to Disney+. Because of course you will, especially if you have a kid, know a kid, or remember being a kid. The real question is whether or not you’ll start dropping your subscriptions to other services once Disney+ launches.

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.

A Great Home Theater is Like Fine Wine

A Great Home Theater is Like Fine Wine

The integrator (Station Earth), interior designer (Red Theory), and theater designer (Paradise Theater)
teamed up to deliver the best of all worlds with this unique private cinema

Years ago, when the term “home theater” originated, it was used to describe something exciting and new. For the first time, the window to the world of fantasy, formerly only available through the venerable “silver screen,” became available in the home. Larger-than-life images, the first immersive audio, and the rooms themselves—from Art Deco to classic to modern, reminiscent of famous theater palaces—started appearing in the homes of those who had the passion and the means to pursue the emerging amenity. A new community emerged, and for the first time we became home theater enthusiasts.

 

In the beginning, those who took up the challenge to bring this experience into the home were inspired by the challenge and the opportunity. The objective of the film producer, to achieve the willing suspense of disbelief, became the challenge for home theater designers. This suspension of disbelief is what great films produce, enabling the viewer to become fully

A Great Home Theater is Like Fine Wine

There are no limits to style when aesthetics are artfully integrated with engineering

engaged in the cinematic experience. To quote Roger Ebert: “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes.“ It takes a great theater environment to realize this experience.

 

On one hand, this earlier era might be considered the “heyday” of home theater, when owning one was considered a worthy

aspiration, and the professionals who designed them were part of an elite group committed to delivering spaces that included emerging technology, aesthetic elements, and performance. Home theater was emerging as a considerable pursuit with a growing community of enthusiasts and professionals. 

 

Ironically, this heyday, while enjoying the enthusiasm of a new idea, fell far short of today’s capacity to deliver excellence. In fact, we were learning, and made many mistakes along the way. However, those who have stayed the course now have the ability to deliver cinematic experiences in the home far superior to any past home theaters—and, in fact, far superior to all but a very few elite commercial or professional screening rooms. The images, the sound, the acoustics, and the knowledge enable us to deliver a level of quality we could only dream of in the past. Unfortunately, along the way home theater has taken on so many forms that those who might have an interest in the experience face a confusing set of options.

A Great Home Theater is Like Fine Wine

A bespoke interior design conceals a state-of-the-art immersive audio system
and theater chassis in this luxury-resort amenity cinema

Manufacturers today offer many alternative solutions that can transform family rooms, dens, even spare bedrooms into what are now called home theaters. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that a larger population of homeowners has an awareness and opportunity to enjoy home theater in some form. The problem is the inference that this defines home theater, that the difference between these solutions and a fully engineered high-performance home theater has become obscured. The rhetoric in some circles is that there is very little difference or that most people can’t tell the difference.

 

But these systems are a far cry from what is readily obtainable today and, most importantly, the purpose of home theater as it originated—a space created to support the artists’ intent, a willing suspension of disbelief; and the potential of the art today—a window to experience a world of art and fantasy like never before. 

It’s like wine. Some people are fine with a mediocre wine, while others have learned to appreciate the qualities of a finer, more expensive wine. People will always find a less expensive and less perfect way to do something, and, until they are shown the difference, will not realize there’s a big difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary. This is especially true when it comes to home theater.

 

Rather than merely focus on the technology behind the movie magic, my company applies a holistic approach, where every aspect of the environment—construction, engineering, aesthetics, and ergonomics—is crafted for the purpose of producing the finest private cinema experience every time. Consider us a bit of a unicorn in the home theater industry by focusing on what we have done and still do best: Designing luxurious, high-caliber, private spaces dedicated to superb movie viewing for our clients around the globe. 

ABOUT
PARADISE THEATER

 

My company, Paradise Theater, which has offices in both Hawaii and California, engineers and designs extraordinary high-performance private cinemas worldwide. Working with integrators, architects and interior designers, Paradise Theater provides the value-added services of optimized room acoustics, private theater performance engineering, design development and integration of theater interiors, and performance verification. The pursuit of excellence in private cinemas is the raison d’être for both me and my company.

—S.C.

Although a lot has changed in the home theater world—the types of technologies available, the variety of professionals who install them, and a looser definition of the term—my team and I have stayed true to the original goals of home theater design by customizing each and every room specifically to provide the best experience possible.

 

We have indeed carved a niche for ourselves in the home theater market by giving consumers a high-end option with high-end results. Yes, technology plays an integral role in the rooms we create, but amazing movie viewing is best achieved when in a space that’s been built, engineered, and designed for that one pastime. Light from windows, noise from a busy street, the hum of a video projector—nothing interferes with the movie-viewing action in an expertly crafted private home cinema.

 

Our mission is to create excellent home cinemas. It’s my passion, and the reason I continue to do what I do.

Sam Cavitt

Sam Cavitt is the founder & president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, HI and Carlsbad,
CA. 
Sam hails from Maui, where he can be found surfing, sailing, drumming, and paddling
when he is not designing.

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel

Marketing-hype phrases like, “From the team that brought you two of the most successful films of all time . . .and, “From the director of Sin City . . .” carry with them a level of expectation that can end up being too much for a film to live up to. This, in part, was the burden that preceded the release of Alita: Battle Angel, and in some ways parallels another film, Mortal Engines.

 

Like Engines, Alita burst onto the cinematic consciousness with an impressive trailer that was full of flash and promise, with incredible detail, effects, and world building. It was also based on a story only familiar to hardcore fans—in this case a 1990 Japanese manga series Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita) by Yukito Kishiro.

 

Alita takes place roughly 550 years in the future, 300 years after a massive interplanetary war known as “The Fall” has devastated much of Earth. While hunting through a scrap yard filled with trash discarded by the last great sky city of Zalem, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the upper half of a large-eyed female cyborg with a fully-functioning human

RELATED REVIEW

Mortal Engines

brain. He brings her home and gives her a body he originally designed years ago for his deceased daughter.

 

The cyborg (Rosa Salazar), whom Ido names Alita after his daughter, has no memories of her past and spends the film trying to discover who she was (and is), what goes on up in Zalem, and how to survive on the mean streets of Iron City, where Hunter-Warriors, cyborg serial killers, and giant Centurion sentry robots create constant sources of conflict. Along the way, Alita discovers she possesses unique and powerful long-lost fighting skills known as “Panzer Kunst,” as well as an innate ability to play Motorball, a futuristic and far more violent/deadly version of roller derby.

While we typically recommend online versions of films here, especially when downloaded in full resolution from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is a case where I’m suggesting you go and purchase the physical 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Why?

 

For one, 20th Century Fox still refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the lossless Dolby Atmos audio mix with its 4K HDR version, leaving you instead with a much less impressive 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. (I’m hopeful Fox’s recent acquisition by Disney—which does provide Kaleidescape with the best audio elements for all 4K titles—will rectify this going forward.)

 

For two, the 4K Blu-ray version comes in a three-disc set that includes the Blu-ray disc with tons of extras, a digital download code, and a third disc with a 3D version of the film that is an absolute blast to watch, if your system is capable. Alita was shot natively in 3D, and with James Cameron involved—the guy responsible for what is still widely considered the greatest 3D film experience ever with Avatar—this is worth the price of purchase alone. 

 

Alita was shot in ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, and while it lists the digital intermediate as “master format,” I’m assuming it was taken from a 2K DI. While the film looks gorgeous, it doesn’t exhibit that ultra-fine level of detail in closeups found in true 4K-sourced films. Another mild disappointment is that while some of the movie was filmed in IMAX for its theatrical release, the home version doesn’t include the IMAX-resolution scenes, which are often some of the finest 4K video available.

 

Those nits aside, Alita frequently fills the screen with eye candy, captivating to look at and behold. Every scene and background bristles with set dressing and design—whether it is machines, buildings, vehicles, or people with a variety of cyborg limbs or appendages, the world of Alita is stunning to see and rich with detail. The film features a fairly drab color palette for many of the daytime outdoor scenes; however, the nighttime scenes exhibit deep, clean black levels, with nice use of HDR highlights in many of the city scenes, with spotlights, signs, and streetlights having extra punch. HDR also benefits the brightly lit interior of the lab of Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and the Motorball arena.

Alita: Battle Angel

While the film relies heavily on Weta Digital’s computer effects throughout, its greatest effect is Alita, a fully computer-generated character. At first, her significantly oversized eyes and slightly smaller mouth (to reflect her manga origins) make her noticeably different, but the caliber of the CGI work—particularly in her eyes, which are incredibly expressive, emotive and, well, human-looking—is so impressive that you quickly just see Alita as a character. (The only thing that slightly pulled me from my suspension of disbelief was a slight disconnect between Alita’s voice and her mouth. Not that it is out of sync by any means, but just something that my eyes and mind couldn’t fully mesh.)

 

As good as the 4K HDR version looks, there’s a definite extra dimension (pun definitely intended) that comes from watching the 3D version. Instead of going for gimmicky shots that come out of the screen towards the viewer (and which frequently cause headaches and eye strain), Alita uses 3D to deliver an amazing sense of depth and dimension, with many backgrounds appearing to just go on forever. One of my favorite shots is when Alita comes out of the water inside the United Republics of Mars (URM) ship, with the water shimmering and waving all around her with incredible depth. The many computer screens throughout also benefit from the 3D presentation. There are definite benefits and advantages to watching either the 4K HDR or 3D version, and I’d highly suggest enjoying both.

 

One drawback of the 3D version is that it replaces the Dolby Atmos soundtrack for the inferior DTS-HD 7.1-channel mix. While still impressive, it didn’t have the depth and immersion of the Atmos soundtrack.

 

Speaking of the audio, Alita features an active, immersive, reference mix throughout. Whether it is the small, atmospheric background sounds that bring life to scenes, or the big, demo-worthy scenes with their massive audio cues that rip and pound through the room, Alita’s audio mix constantly entertains.

 

The first major audio moment comes at the 11-minute mark when Alita rescues a dog from a walking Centurion. The mech moves over Alita’s (and your) head, with its feet slamming into the ground, producing concussive bass waves. You clearly hear all the whirrs and hums of the mech’s motor servos and hydraulics as it moves around the room, putting you right in the middle of the action. 

 

Other big reference audio moments include Alita’s first fight, in an alley, at the 27-minute mark, the Motorball stadium at 42-minutes, and the fight with Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) inside the Kansas Bar at little more than an hour in. In these big scenes, you are in a hemispherical audio cocoon, with sounds clearly emanating from all points of the room around you, such as Grewishka’s metal claws launching right past your head and his voice mocking Alita from all around.

 

Even non-action scenes are filled with sounds, such as the water dripping all around you inside the URM ship, or the sounds of various machines and computers in Ido’s lab.

 

When you remove the pressure and high expectation that surrounded Alita’s release, in many ways you’re left with exactly the kind of movie that home theater was designed for. It’s big, it’s flashy, it has incredible detail, and it rocks an absolutely reference Dolby Atmos sound mix. Is it a perfect movie? Far from it. But is it a fun movie that will push your display and sound system to their limits, impressing you and your guests in the process? Absolutely.

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.

Demo Scenes: Avengers: Endgame

Demo Scenes: "Avengers: Endgame"
“Avengers Assemble”
(Chapter 16, 2:16:02–2:19:42)

 

Martin Mull (or maybe it was Frank Zappa?) once opined that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Trying to convey the benefits of high dynamic range video can feel a little like that at times, given that most web browsers don’t support HDR by default, and still images just can’t do it justice. So, those of us who champion this video innovation in written form are often reduced to hyperbolic-sounding statements that still don’t effectively get the point across. It’s brighter! It’s darker! It’s billions of colors!

 

Want to see for yourself the difference that HDR can truly make? Fire up your Kaleidescape, download the 4K HDR version of Avengers: Endgame, and cue up the climactic moments of the big final battle when (spoiler alert, in case it wasn’t already obvious) the heroes who fell in Infinity War return from non-existence and are magically teleported by Doctor Strange onto

the battlefield alongside Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. On Kaleidescape, it’s the scene named “Avengers Assemble,” for obvious reasons. If you’re watching via some other platform, you can skip to the timestamp listed above.

 

But don’t press that Play button just yet. Before you watch the scene in 4K HDR, check out the same sequence in the HD version first. It’s epic, to be sure, even in Blu-ray quality. The battlefield feels immense. The shadows that hang over the sundered pile of rubble where Avengers HQ once stood are deep and inky. The layer of grime and streaks of blood marring Cap’s face are tangible and perfectly textured. Once you’ve soaked in all of that and gotten a good reminder of what state-of-the-art home video looked like barely more than three years ago, switch over to the 4K HDR version and prepare to have your hair blown back.

 

Truth be told, there isn’t much of a difference in terms of resolution, given that Endgame was sourced from a 2K digital intermediate. And yet, the enhanced contrast HDR brings with it makes every shot feel crisper, more detailed, more dimensional, more lifelike. (I mean, as lifelike as a 

scene can look when it involves a bunch of grown folks running around in armored pajamas fighting a big purple space fascist.)

 

This isn’t just an academic study in video specs, though. What makes the HDR presentation of Endgame work so well—in this scene, particularly—is that it genuinely enhances the passion and poignancy of these moments. The portals Doctor Strange opens aren’t merely razzle-dazzle circles floating in the darkness, as they are in high-definition and standard dynamic range—they’re blinding rips in the spacetime continuum. The sun hanging over the horizon isn’t simply a yellow-white spot on your screen—it’s a stunning light source that pierces the darkness of the battlefield, and indeed of your room.

 

These brilliant spots of light dancing through the darkness actually have a physiological effect, dilating your pupils a bit and tickling your wince reflex—though not pushing it to the point of discomfort. And given that you’re genuinely, physically engaged with the imagery, you can’t help but be drawn more deeply into it. You’re not merely a passive observer of this shield-throwing, lightning-calling, web-spinning battle for the fate of the universe—you’re more invested in the action because all of those photons pouring off of your screen literally invoke an involuntary biological response, yanking you into the heightened reality of it all. At that point, you’re not just watching a movie; you’re having an experience. One that simply wouldn’t be possible without HDR.

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.

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Photo by Ivan Boban from Pexels

Listening to a luxury turntable can be a sublime musical experience. However, actually buying an ultimate record-playback setup can be daunting, especially if you don’t know who to turn to for advice. There are so many choices for turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and electronics . . . where to begin?

The short answer: Rely on an expert.

 

The obvious first place to look is a good specialist audio/video retailer, custom installation firm, or systems integration company. You want companies that sell and install high-end turntables and are knowledgeable about these things. (Luxury turntables require expert setup.)

 

Do a search, and you’ll find that some dealers focus on home audio and video, while other companies lean toward home automation, business, and corporate services, and may not even have turntables on their line card. Traditional “stereo stores” (boy, does that sound dated, but do a Google search and they’ll come up) will likely be your best bet, but don’t rule out others without checking. Stirling Trayle of the consulting company Audio Systems Optimized notes, “The consumer/dealer relationship is vital. Find a good dealer and stick with them.”

 

See if the potential dealer carries reputable brands. Ones you can expect to find at a dealer who’s on top of his game

include Brinkmann, Clearaudio, Linn, McIntosh, SME, Tech DAS, and VPI.

 

Even if you don’t know a platter from a pizza you should be prepared with as much knowledge as possible. As the old Syms clothing store commercials used to say, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”

 

Good articles about buying turntables can be found online at Engadget, CNET and Make Use Of. Although these tend to focus on lower- and mid-priced models rather than ne plus ultra gear, they’re good reading. For articles about and reviews of ultimate-performance gear, check out some of the websites listed in the “Sites & Sound” sidebar below.

And if you feel up to some old-school book-length reading, I highly recommend two volumes, both written in a clear, non-intimidating style. The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, contains a wealth of information on turntables (and every other type of audio component). It’s available from Amazon, HiFiBooks.com, and other outlets. The Friendly Audio Guide by veteran A/V writer Mark Fleischmann is exactly that, filled with useful material about turntables and everything audio. You can buy it from Amazon, Quiet River Press, and elsewhere.

 

As for online and Facebook forums and discussion groups, you’ll need to keep things in perspective. Audiophiles tend to be opinionated, with adherents and detractors for analog vs. digital, tubes vs. solid-state, and every conceivable audio-related topic, with no consensus on what’s “best.” That said, reading posts, some from honest-to-goodness audio-industry experts who are friendly and generous with advice, can be extremely informative.

 

However . . . there’s also an epidemic of misinformation online. Without getting 

into the sociological “why,” it’s well-known that social media sites are filled with people posting uninformed and rude comments. Sadly, audio forums and discussion groups aren’t immune. Beware of self-styled “experts” who are anything but, not to mention the flat-out trolls. If the poster is inflammatory, dogmatic, condescending, seems to have an agenda, or all of the above, those are the typical tells of someone to ignore.

Once you feel like you’ve identified some potential places to buy your dream turntable setup, go and take a listen. Buying a high-performance, luxury turntable-based audio system is not unlike buying a sports car—and can cost as much, all told. So you’ll want to be as comfortable with your audio dealer as you are with your car dealer.

 

Check out a variety of turntables. This is important: Ask the dealer to take you through the process of actually playing a record—putting it on the platter, cueing up the tonearm/cartridge, and so on. Playing a record without damaging the disc or the turntable takes a little practice. And you’ll want some instruction in how to maintain your gear over time. Bring some good-sounding records you’re familiar with so you’ll have a consistent point of reference as you check out different models (see “A Newbie’s List of Reference Discs”).

 

 A great turntable setup should sound astoundingly lifelike, detailed and dynamic with an almost tangible presence to vocals and instruments. It should absolutely, completely, utterly blow you away.

 

Oh, and one more suggestion . . .

 

If you can, attend an audio show! If you’ve never been to one, you’ll be dazzled by the variety of turntables and audio gear to listen to. They’re a wonderful opportunity to meet the designers and manufacturers first-hand, along with hundreds of enthusiasts. They’re also tremendous fun! With more and more audio shows happening around the country—like AXPONA (Chicago), Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

A NEWBIE’S LIST OF REFERENCE DISCS

If you already have some albums you’re well familiar with, bring those along when you go to audition a turntable. But if you’re looking for a place to start, you can’t go wrong with these classic choices:

 

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Mobile Fidelity re-issue)

The Eagles, Hotel California

Diana Krall, All for You

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin’ 

Cecile McLorin, WomanChild

(Denver), Capital Audiofest (Rockville, MD), the Florida Audio Expo (Tampa), the California Audio Show (Oakland), The Home Entertainment Show (Long Beach, CA), and the New York Audio Show (Manhattan)—not to mention international shows, you can find one just about anywhere.

 

There’s no one “right” way to buy a vinyl playback setup. While the opinions of an expert will be invaluable, ultimately, you should buy what makes you (and your fellow listeners) happy.

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.

I Don’t Watch Specs–I Watch Content

I Don't Watch Specs--I Watch Content

Over on my YouTube channel, I am reminded daily by viewers about things I’ve said in the past, and how they (the royal they) believe them to be untrue. Among the most “provocative” things I’ve said recently on my channel has to do with streaming video. I actually cannot recall in what video I said this, but I made a comment to the effect of, the best video available today is on streaming.

 

Now, this little throwaway line was but a single sentiment found within a 20-minute-long video. But it has caused some consternation among my viewers. Mainly, they continue to be up in arms over it because, well, specifications as they relate to

physical media say otherwise. To which I reply . . . I don’t care. I don’t watch specs, I watch content. I take in story, craft, and the complete picture. From which I conclude, the best overall video experiences are on streaming.

 

Never mind the fact that I’ve taken part in countless blind A/B tests that pit physical media against streaming, and never mind that the results are never conclusive with respect to physical media’s “dominance.” What about sound, you ask? Same story. I’ve even matrixed a 2.0 mix to 7.1 and had a room full of golden ears believe they were listening to a Dolby TrueHD track. How can that be? I turned the volume up 6dB over the actual Dolby TrueHD demo. They perceived the heightened volume as clarity, when it was just an underhanded trick that I knew would work.

 

You know when I care about specifications? I care about specs when it comes time to capture said story, because that is something as a creative I have control over. But of the specs of your lowly playback medium I care not, because I had to come to grips with reality a long time ago—the reality that no matter what format you choose to believe is best, you’re still only getting a small percentage of what was actually captured or created.

 

Oh but Andrew, I can hear you start to say—“but” nothing. Because specifications fail to take into account the more important factor when it comes to entertainment, what you actually enjoy watching. Physical media is but a parrot to what is happening elsewhere in entertainment —for example what you’ve already seen in theaters. Whereas streaming is largely giving you a never-before-seen

experience, of which you have nothing to compare it to other than itself. Do you like Stranger Things on Netflix? Great, me too. Tell me how Stranger Things on Netflix doesn’t look great all things considered? I’ll wait.

 

I am not anti physical media, for I know for a lot of you it is still the best way to consume higher-quality content because you may not have blazin’ fast Internet. But to reduce everything you see or hear to specs is so shortsighted and kind of an insult to the creators. Moreover, the real-world data simply doesn’t support the commonly thrown-about notion that physical media is “better.” Convenience may have opened the door for streaming to become mainstream, but make no mistake, if it didn’t look as good as it does now, no way would anyone continue to pay for it. No, it is the better format—specs be damned—because it’s where the more interesting storytelling is occurring now. It also just so happens to look and sound damn good doing it.

 

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame comes to the screen with an incredible amount of baggage for any one film to carry. It has to serve as the emotional and narrative conclusion of 11 years’ and 21 films’ worth of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) stories. It has to serve as the second half of a film released a year earlier. It also has to work as a self-contained narrative on its own terms—one that satisfies both hardcore fans who’ve seen all 21 of those previous Marvel movies numerous times, as well as more casual moviegoers who may have seen some of them only once, if at all.

 

The fact that Endgame manages to check all of those boxes without crumbling under its own weight is a bit of a minor cinematic miracle. The fact that it ends up being so much more than a mere obligatory box checker is a testament to the

talents of the film’s directors (Joe and Anthony Russo) and writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely).

 

To get into why, though, we need to dip our toes into spoiler territory, for both Endgame and 2018’s Infinity War, but I’ll try to keep things as vague as possible on both fronts, for the pair of you who’ve seen neither film. At the end of Infinity Warwe were left in a weird place for a big, blockbuster superhero franchise. The villain had won. Half the population of the universe—and half of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes—had been “blipped” out of existence at the snap of a finger. Mind you, we live in a world where films are announced years in advance, and it didn’t take a savvy viewer to put two and two together and realize that some of those dead heroes were only a film or two into a multi-film contract, which meant they would be coming back, somehow or another, by the end of this film.

 

Think about that weird conundrum for long, and it quickly becomes apparent that Endgame ran the serious risk of not only narratively undermining Infinity War by undoing its deaths, but also of emotionally undermining it so severely that the first part of this two-part story lost all impact for future viewings. I think the most dedicated Marvel fans 

amongst us all sort of went into Endgame knowing that this would be the price we had to pay in order to see the resolution of this storyline.

 

Except, that ends up not being the case at all. Instead of undermining Infinity War—narratively and emotionally—Endgame ends up enriching it, making it a more interesting and impactful story. If the thematic arc of Infinity War could be boiled down to coming to terms with defeat, Endgame at its core is a film about consequences. As with any good epic (in the Tolkien sense

Avengers: Endgame

of the word, not the Hollywood sense of the word), Endgame is a film about the high cost of victory. So, rather than robbing Infinity War of emotional and narrative weight, this film piles an extra heaping helping of solemnity on its forebear, and all the films that came before it.

 

Once its end credits roll, what we the viewers are left with is not only a satisfying yet bittersweet conclusion to the rambling and seemingly disconnected narrative that began with 2008’s Iron Man, but also one that makes us reflect on everything that has happened to the MCU’s characters along the way. Honestly, it even redeems some of the MCU’s weaker efforts, like 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, although perhaps only in retrospect. (And no, I’m not confident enough in this statement to actually suffer through that movie again to find out for sure.)

 

But as I said above, Endgame would be a wholly unsatisfying film if it were merely a massive nostalgia romp. I won’t recount the plot here, because if you’ve seen the movie you already know it, and if you haven’t, I would sound like I was having a stroke. But what makes the film work on its own terms is, in part, the economy of its storytelling. That may seem an ironic statement to make about a three-hour film, but the Russos, Markus, and McNeely have managed to craft an engrossing narrative that feels perfectly paced, because when the plot is simple and straightforward, they use that opportunity to ramp up the richness and diversity of the story’s themes; and by contrast, when the narrative gets more complex (as will happen when you’re playing around with comic-book quantum physics and the fabric of spacetime), they use simpler and more straightforward thematic underpinning to maintain a coherent through-line.

Avengers: Endgame

The film also uses the luxury of its relatively long running time to give the characters a lot of room to breathe. Upon second viewing, I was taken aback by how much of the film is devoted to people sitting around, simply talking to one another. It’s refreshing, to be sure, and It’s exactly what was required to give these beloved characters one last chance to grow, and express their growth, in shockingly adult ways. Coming out the other end of the film, I honestly wonder if most viewers realize that only about half an hour of screen time is really dedicated to stereotypical blockbuster comic-book action scenes.

 

Unsurprisingly, it is those scenes that shine the brightest in Kaleidescape’s 4K/HDR presentation of the film. And I mean that literally. This is truly some of the most effective use of HDR I’ve seen to date, especially in the big battle at the end, where stunning contrasts are used not merely for eye candy, but also to reinforce the emotions of the sequence. I watched this epic

throwdown back-to-back in Blu-ray quality and 4K with HDR, and while it certainly got my nerd heart pumping in mere 1080p HD, I was literally moved to tears by the climactic turning point of the battle as it plays out in high dynamic range.

 

But hey, if you’re just in it for the eye candy, Kaleidescape’s presentation works on that front, too, even if the vivid and detailed presentation does at times make some of the special effects ever-so-slightly too obvious. Audio enthusiasts who’ve grumbled at Disney for their sometimes-lackluster audio mixes will also be delighted by the richness of the film’s soundtrack and its effective use of bowel-loosening bass and the aggressiveness of the Dolby TrueHD Atmos track’s height channels. Truth be told, those effects were a little too distracting for my tastes, and I preferred the included DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, but it’s nice that both options are available.

 

There is one other audio track that absolutely cannot be ignored, although you’ll only find it on the Blu-ray-quality download (which is included with your 4K HDR purchase): The audio commentary by directors Anthony & Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. If you listened to their commentary for Infinity War, you know what you’re in for here. If not, I’m jealous that you get to experience it for the first time. As with the previous film, their commentary is less 

Avengers: Endgame

a scene-by-scene breakdown of how the film was made, and more a masterclass in storytelling, character development, and filmmaking, making it essential listening even if you typically skip commentaries.

 

It’s just a shame that the rest of the extras don’t rise to the same level. Also included with the Blu-ray-quality download is about an hour’s worth of bonus documentaries that you can mostly ignore, except for the eight-minute tribute to Stan Lee that was included after the film in its soft theatrical re-release back in June. You’ll also want to check out the last of the six deleted scenes (which, by the way, doesn’t include the excised clip that was tacked onto the aforementioned theatrical re-release).

 

Hopefully, at some point Endgame will get a double-dip home video release whose bonus features dig a little deeper into the rich tapestry that is this film. Until then, though, this one is a must-own.

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.

Why I’m Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

Why I'm Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

We’ve sung a fair amount of praise on this site for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video, and a lot of the content we review comes from these providers. The convenience of steaming can’t be denied, and the quality is catching up. Netflix, in particular, offers a lot of excellent 4K HDR content that, provided you have the bandwidth to stream it reliably, is almost indistinguishable from Ultra HD Blu-ray. You still don’t get uncompressed Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, but you do get Atmos in a compressed form—so they’re making progress on the audio side, too.

 

I feel as enthusiastic about streaming as everyone else. I cut the cord a couple years ago, and streaming is how I receive most of my video content. Movie night in my house generally begins with a scroll through Apple’s movie rentals or Netflix’s

recent releases. Yet despite my appreciation of all things streaming, I have no intention of getting rid of my disc player, and I can sum up the reason why in three words:

 

The Sure Thing

 

Yes, I’m talking about Rob Reiner’s 1985 comedy starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, a most beloved film of my middle- and high-school years. One recent evening, as I pondered what to stream, I thought of this classic film and decided a rewatch was long overdue. A voice search through my Apple TV revealed no results. Really? Could that be true? A quick trip to JustWatch.com, one of many websites that helps you search across streaming platforms, confirmed that The Sure Thing is not available to stream anywhere. I was out of luck.

 

Or was I? In a bold move, I got up from my couch, walked all the way across the room, and scanned my wall o’ discs that has become more decor than anything at this point. And there it was, right next to other beloved “S” classics like She’s Having a Baby, Splash, Sports Night: The Complete Series, and The Sound of Music that I acquired during the disc era’s heyday. Granted it was the DVD version; the film was never released on Blu-ray either. (I’m not holding my breath on a UHD BD release.) But it’s mine, and I can watch it whenever I want—as long as I hold on to that disc player.

 

This discovery sent me down the rabbit hole to see what other films from my youth are not available to stream. I came across an Engadget story from August 2018 about screenwriter John August, who, upon being equally shocked that he couldn’t stream Ron Howard’s Cocoon, called on the Internet hive to help him create a database of movies that are MIA from the streaming sphere. Here are a few that caught my eye:

 

Better Off Dead

The Cannonball Run

The Cotton Club

Dogma

The Flamingo Kid

History of the World Part 1

Irreconcilable Differences

Jungle Fever

The Last American Virgin

Mask

Prizzi’s Honor

Pump Up the Volume

Rhinestone

Silkwood

Spirited Away

To Live and Die In LA

Wild at Heart

Willow

 

The full list is no longer completely accurate (if it ever was). Some of the films on it are now available through at least one streaming service, although I was surprised that some pretty big names—like James Cameron’s The Abyss and True Lies—are only available through smaller-tier platforms (i.e., not Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Google Play).

Perhaps the above list doesn’t faze you. Perhaps it only fazes Gen Xers like me who grew up with a lot of those films on standard rotation on cable TV, and thus have a nostalgic attachment to them. But there’s another issue with streaming that might faze you: Its glaring lack of consistency, both in quality and content availability.

 

Netflix drops titles all the time. Content providers shift loyalties, so a movie you watched last month on Amazon Prime may not be there today. Disney, which now owns a frightening share of the cinematic universe, is getting ready to launch its massive Netflix competitor, Disney+. How that will affect the offerings now available through the other major steaming platforms remains to be seen, but we know it will affect them. How many streaming subscriptions are you prepared to pay for to ensure access to desired content?

There’s a continuity to the disc experience that I still find comforting. When we’re talking about movies that you know your family will watch over and over again, sometimes it’s better to just buy the thing so you know exactly where it lives. Plus, it took a lot of time and money for me to amass my disc collection, and I’m not prepared to part with it just yet. Even if I don’t partake of it as often as I used to, I know it still serves a purpose.

The other day, I was trying to explain to my kiddo why the phrase “I want my two dollars” will make most people my age laugh. It was time to introduce her to Better Off Dead, another 1985 John Cusack classic that has been mercilessly shunned by the streaming mafia. Thanks to the convenience of YouTube, I could show her just the film segments involving everyone’s favorite psychotic paper boy in one neatly edited montage. That’s the beauty of streaming. And when she’s ready to watch the whole movie, I know there’s a copy sitting on my shelf, eager to satisfy. That’s the beauty of disc.

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.

A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men

Film studios look at technology advancements and big anniversaries as an opportunity to dip back into the vault and re-release a classic in a shined-up new package. In the past, this has resulted in some improvement as we’ve moved from a 480p DVD release to a new 1080p Blu-ray, sometimes with a new, cleaned-up and improved video transfer, or with a lossless audio track or some new set of bonus features.

 

But when older films get a 4K HDR makeover, we almost always get a brand new transfer, especially since it needs to be graded for HDR and the wider BT.2020 color gamut. We also see many studios opting to remix old, dated soundtracks in Dolby Atmos.

 

One studio that repeatedly impresses with its handling of catalog titles is Sony Pictures. Its home-video arm consistently takes a ton of care on restorations, breathing life into older films by cleaning away years of noise and damage and giving them a new 4K scan, resulting in movies that look better than what you could have experienced if you’d watched them on opening

night in a flagship theater years ago. Some recent Sony transfers that totally impressed were The Natural, The Karate Kid, The Fifth Element, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

 

A recent recipient of the 25-Year Silver Anniversary treatment is the classic courtroom drama, A Few Good Men. The movie actually isn’t new to 4K Blu-ray disc, having seen a limited release in 2017 as a Best Buy exclusive, with a wide retail release in 2018. However, the new 4K HDR transfer just landed at the Kaleidescape Store and, with an impressively low “upgrade from Blu-ray to HDR” price of just $11.99, I snapped it up.

 

I can’t imagine much needs to be said about Men in way of a synopsis at this point, as it finds itself on regular rotation amongst the cable channels. But the film centers on a crime committed among a group of Marines serving at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a team of Navy attorneys, tasked with defending the accused Marines, sent to investigate and then decide whether to accept a plea bargain or see it through in court. Was the crime ordered—and then covered-up—as a “Code Red” by a higher-ranking officer to punish a soldier stepping outside the chain of command, or was it committed to keep someone from reporting an alleged offense on base? The film builds in intensity towards the final, “You can’t handle the truth!” courtroom showdown between Tom Cruise as lead counsel Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Jack Nicholson, who received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in Supporting Role for his ultra-memorable portrayal of Colonel Nathan Jessep.

The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from his play of the same name. What makes the film so powerful is Sorkin’s snappy dialogue, and the screen just bristles with star power in every frame. I had forgotten just how many mega-stars grace the credits of Men. Besides Cruise and Nicholson, we have Demi Moore, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Noah Wyle, and a brief appearance by Cuba Gooding Jr.

 

This is an entirely story-driven film, with virtually no special effects at all, so the movie succeeds entirely on the basis of its story and acting, much of which holds up. (There are a couple of scenes where Moore seemed to be trying a bit too hard, in my opinion.)

 

As seems to be the common practice, the opening Columbia Pictures and Castle Rock title cards look terrible—perhaps these are left alone to show you just how bad the un-remastered material looks. But rest assured, once the film begins, images are clean and detailed, with lots of pop.

 

The opening morning (or evening?) scenes of the Cuban sky are tinted a bit heavy on the orange side, but otherwise colors are natural and accurate throughout the film. The first “wow” moment comes with the title-sequence shot of the American flag, with the red stripes having a vibrancy not found on the Blu-ray disc, and also having crisp, sharp lines. You can also see all of the fine markings in the bayonet attached to the rifle of the Silent Drill team, as well as the wood-grain detail in the rifle stocks.

A Few Good Men

The added resolution also lets you see the texture and detail in objects like the Naval uniform shoulder boards, where you can see the fine threading in the stripes as well as detail in the buttons. In one closeup conversation between Cruise and Nicholson, you can clearly see every individual eyebrow in the actors’ faces.

 

There aren’t a lot of night scenes in the film, but the few present—mostly exterior shots of DC at night—benefit from the added contrast and brightness of HDR. You also see a pronounced improvement over the Blu-ray in the outdoor scenes. 

During one scene at Guantanamo, the buildings and walls are far brighter, as are the dress-white uniforms, with gleaming white collars, and sunlight glinting off brass as they catch the bright sun. Flipping over to the same scene in the Blu-ray, the image is just dull by comparison.

 

Black levels are deep and clean throughout, with there being a clear difference between the ultra-deep, near-black navy blue of Moore’s Navy cap compared to the dark blue of Cruise’s Boston Red Sox cap.

 

You might not think a dialogue-driven film like Men would benefit from a Dolby Atmos audio makeover, but you’d be mistaken. The dialogue now seems to have more room to breathe across the front channels, with the sound mixer judiciously spacing ambient cues around the room, adding width to the presentation. Outdoor scenes benefit from subtle offscreen sounds that open the soundstage, or with voices occasionally calling from far off screen. In the courtroom, the tone of the dialogue takes on the different character of the more reverberant space. Most importantly, every spoken word is clear and easily understood. A dramatic thunderstorm late in the film also gives the audio mix a chance to push sounds up overhead and drive some info to the subwoofer.

A Few Good Men

With A Few Good Men, Sony has once again proved itself, creating a new 4K Digital Intermediate from the original 35mm film negative that produces fantastic images, giving fresh life to this dramatic, Rob Reiner-directed classic.

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 Religion Surrounding AV Gear

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

It all started with a Sony OLED 4K/UltraHD display, one with Sony’s own AcousticSurface tech. That display, despite being visually brilliant, also was among the first that sounded audibly brilliant, all things considered. Was it as good an aural experience as having discrete loudspeakers? No, but it did rival the performance of most of today’s mainstream soundbars. The display was important to me in my evolution as an enthusiast because, for the first time, a display—a single piece of tech—served as an all-in-one home entertainment solution.

 

All-in-one solutions are nothing new to specialty AV or hi-fi. Many would likely argue that integrated amplifiers are all-inclusive. While I would largely agree, integrated amps still require the end user to have speakers, source components (in most cases), and a display, whereas the Sony required, well, a power cord. The 75-inch display—which is plenty big for an immersive

home theater experience by the way—was all that was required in order to enjoy my favorite films, new and old, via streaming. Oh, and it was “smart,” meaning anyone with vocal cords could operate it to its fullest potential.

 

I cannot stress what an eye-opening experience living with that particular display was. As good as its sound was on its own, I knew there was room for it to improve through the use of third-party speakers. Enter the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo. Not wanting to turn this into a Formation Duo review, what you need to know is this: These are lifestyle, powered speakers designed to work within Bowers & Wilkins’ own ecosystem, but are also compatible with the latest variations of AirPlay and Bluetooth.

While most displays have Bluetooth capability, and can be paired with Bluetooth-enabled speakers, the Sony’s Bluetooth controls allow for finer adjustments typically reserved for AV receivers and processors. It’s because of this that I was able to enjoy a truly seamless sound experience between the Sony and the Formation Duo. No delays. No hiccups. Just quality sound sans any and all cabling apart from power cables.

 

It was jaw-dropping, partially because it sounded brilliant but also because the whole setup experience was largely automated. The biggest decision I had to make was where to set the speakers themselves. This ease of use, lack of

clutter, and resulting fantastic performance was so impactful that my wife even noticed. Some months later, and this setup remains a staple in our home, and one she comments on daily.

 

Unfortunately, enthusiasts online are less enthusiastic about this setup and its implications—proving, once again, that despite all of our technological advances, we worship at the altar of gear rather than absolute performance. And that’s the truth, for I would put the Formation Duo/

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo speakers

Sony combo up against any similarly priced setup and then some, and am willing to bet that most folks would actually prefer the sound of the Duos over traditional speakers, so long as they didn’t know what products they were listening to.

 

And that is the larger issue—one I know I’ve raised in other articles on this site—that as interest in specialty AV dwindles, are the hobby’s own supporters to blame? Because wireless and powered tech is being designed at a breakneck pace to give future generations products that they themselves feel comfortable with, and that speak to them. Problem is, these same products, like the Formation Duos, need current enthusiasts to adopt them as well, which isn’t happening. Powered, wireless, or smart products aren’t bad, or incapable of terrific performance; they’re just fighting against nearly 50 years of “tradition”, tradition that has become borderline religion for some. And it would seem that cutting ties with cables and excess equipment for many is akin to cutting ties with the Almighty Himself.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.