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A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

With the resurgence of all things vinyl, there’s arguably never been a better time to add a high-end turntable to a luxury home entertainment setup.

 

A what?

 

Audiophiles like me take this for granted, but most people don’t even realize luxury turntables even exist. But what exactly makes a turntable luxury? Well, if it’s defined not just by price but by the ability to deliver a compelling musical experience, the best record-playback systems sound remarkably realistic, blurring the line between “reproduced sound” and the feeling the musicians are right in front of you.

A fine turntable can also be strikingly beautiful, whether a minimalist design like the classic Linn Sondek LP-12 or the clockwork-tech visuals of the VPI Avenger Reference.

 

If you think of audiophiles as a bunch of tweak-crazy perfectionists—assuming you’ve ever bothered to think of audiophiles at all—well, in some cases, you’d be right. (Certainly in my case!) But don’t let the thought that a turntable isn’t a simple plug-and-play purchase scare you away from buying and enjoying one of these gorgeous pieces of machinery.

But there’s one thing I need to emphasize before we proceed: Any high-end turntable will require setup.

 

If you don’t know, or don’t want to know, the tricks of the trade, you can enlist the help of a dealer, systems integrator, or turntable setup specialist (yes, there are people like that). Their advice (and that of expert reviewers) on what turntable to buy 

will also be invaluable. While setup is exacting, it’s not a black art, so if you want to learn how to do it yourself, I would recommend Michael Fremer’s turntable setup DVD.

 

Better turntables start at around a few hundred dollars for a complete turntable/arm/cartridge setup, and spending from $500 to around $2,000 will bring immense musical satisfaction. But if you’re striving for the sonic ultimate, manufacturers like 

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the five-platter, 780-pound TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable

the above and SME, Brinkmann, Spiral Groove, Rega, and Technics offer models from four and five figures all the way up to the mighty $440,000, 780-plus-pound TechDAS Air Force Zero, which features five interlocking platters floating on a cushion of air, and a host of exotic proprietary materials, including a motor that’s no longer made.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the Koestu Goldline Black
phono cartridge

Should you decide to invest in such a dazzling device, you’ll need to add a tonearm and cartridge. While there are plenty of excellent complete turntable setups on the market, for many high-end record-playback rigs, the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge must be chosen separately. (One truly luxury exception is the $17,500 SME Synergy, which includes a Nagra phono stage and Ortofon Windfeld cartridge.) 

 

There are ultra-refined tonearms from some of the manufacturers mentioned above, plus Swedish Analog Technologies (their $48,000 CF1-09 is a mind blower), Acoustic Signature, Graham Engineering and more, and dozens of superb phono cartridges from Grado, Ortofon, Koetsu, Audio-Technica, van den Hul, Kiseki, Lyra, Soundsmith, and many others. The miniaturized works of these diamond-tipped marvels are made to the standards of fine watches.

To go to another level of audiophile geekdom—and raise another topic you might want to hand off to an expert—you’ll also need a phono stage, which amplifies and equalizes the weak signals coming from the turntable to a level the rest of the audio system can handle. (In the days when turntables were everywhere, phono inputs were common on receivers and preamps—today, not so much.) While budget and some under-$1,000 turntables have a built-in phono stage, ultimate-performance phono rigs and outboard phono stages like the Audio Research Reference Phono 3 ($15,000) or the CH Precision P1 ($31,000) go together like Ferraris and Brembo brakes.

 

(For an overview of what’s available check Stereophile’s”Recommended Components” or The Absolute Sound’s“Editors’ Choice” listings.)

 

Why is the best turntable gear expensive? Consider: A record groove is around 40 to 80 micrometers wide. A human hair is 17 to 181 µm wide! When dealing with that kind of micro-level physics, things like stylus shape and cartridge and tonearm alignment become exacting concerns in accurately translating the minute wiggles of the stylus through the groove into electrical signals heard as music. On the macro level, the motor must spin the platter at an unwavering speed (or it’ll be heard as pitch variation) while adding no noise of its own, and the turntable should be immune from outside vibrations.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the MAG-LEV Audio ML1 turntable features a levitating record platter

It all adds up to a delicate balancing act—literally—and the engineering involved could fill more than one book. There are a myriad of approaches to things like materials, cartridge designs (the most common are moving coil and moving magnet), tonearm geometries, motors, and noise isolation. (The MAG-LEV Audio ML1 turntable uses magnetic levitation for platter

isolation!) Materials like titanium platters, high-precision bearings, and handmade phono cartridges don’t come cheap, especially when manufactured in small quantities. But when a manufacturer takes a cost-no-object approach, it provides the freedom to reach for the sonic ultimate.

 

So, what’s best for you? I asked Michael Trei, who is a reviewer for Sound & Vision and a turntable setup expert, what his well-to-do clients want most—looks? sound? bragging rights? “Reliability is the most important thing,” he said. ”My customers don’t want to deal with turntables going out of adjustment.”

 

He added that “arm handling is important.” There aren’t any high-end turntables with automatic operation (let alone remote control!), so you have to manually play your records, and take care in doing so. Because of that, you need to be comfortable with the “feel” of the arm. (Some SME models make it physically impossible to accidentally drop the tonearm onto the record.)

 

For the klutzes among us, Trei recommends using a moving-magnet cartridge, since the stylus on most can be easily replaced if damaged. If you have toddlers or others who might cause damage, keep the turntable—or them—out of reach! “I wish someone would make a locking turntable dustcover,” Trei mused.

 

On the other hand, as mentioned before, some audiophiles enjoy “tweaking” their setups. Some turntables are very stable; others require regular attention.

Is it all worth it? Consider me an enabler. A high-end turntable setup will convey music with astounding realism, resolution of musical detail, and a soundspace that can extend beyond the boundaries of your entertainment room or place you right in the audience.

 

If you’ve never heard a high-end turntable at this level of performance, it will be a revelation.

 

If that’s not luxury for the soul, I don’t know what is.

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.

How to Sell Specialty AV to Women

How to Sell Specialty AV to Women

In an era where it’s so easy to buy (and return) Internet-direct AV gear and smart-home products, specialty AV retailers and custom installers face the daunting challenge of figuring out how to get potential shoppers into their stores. It’s the same challenge that pretty much every brick-and-mortar store faces these days, but high-end AV retailers must deal with a second hurdle: When your industry still caters primarily to men, how do you avoid alienating the other half of the buying public?

 

I don’t speak for all women. I only speak for myself when I say that a trip to the specialty AV store sounds as appealing as a trip to the car dealership. In both cases, I’m going in with low expectations. I expect to be ignored or talked down to, to have all sorts of stereotypical assumptions thrown my way, and to be constantly pushing back against the upsell. If I can research and buy similar goods on the Internet and avoid that treatment, I’m going to do so.

 

We all know that sales is an art—the art of truly seeing the person right in front of you and figuring out how to sell specifically to them. Every sale is different because every person is different, so it’s hard to make generalizations on how to sell to anyone. But here are a few big-picture suggestions for AV/custom retailers to keep in mind when interacting with female shoppers—really, all shoppers.

 

Check Your Bias

I was originally going to title this section “Don’t make assumptions,” but the reality is that salespeople have to make assumptions. It’s just part of the job. The question is, are you making assumptions that immediately dismiss or diminish the person who just walked through the door? 

 

I’ve worked in the AV industry as a writer and gear reviewer for about 20 years, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been dismissed or diminished at trade shows, industry events, and specialty shops by pitch people who assume I don’t know tech. If I’m standing next to a man while getting a pitch on a new piece of AV gear, the chances are still quite high that a male pitch person will not make eye contact with me at all. He assumes I don’t know or care about the technology and won’t understand what he’s talking about. If he does look at me, it’s always when we get to subject of design—the nice finish, 

If a man and woman come into your store together, don’t assume he’s the gearhead and she’s the reluctant tagalong

the color options, the pretty buttons. You know, the kind of stuff a woman would care about. If I’m the only person getting the pitch, he usually tends to dumb things down to an offensively basic level.

 

Even if all your past experience tells you women don’t care as much about the gear, it’s important to check that bias before interacting with any new customer. If a man and woman come into your store together, don’t assume he’s the gearhead and she’s the reluctant tagalong who’s just there to make sure he doesn’t go crazy or pick out ugly stuff. Treat them as equal partners, enthusiasts, and decision makers, at least until their own words and actions demonstrate otherwise.

And if a woman walks into your store by herself, she’s there for a reason. Maybe it’s not to buy a $5,000 tube amp or a $20,000 pair of electrostats (or maybe it is!). The melding of AV, smart home, and advanced control technologies has created an incredibly interesting and diverse portfolio of luxury home products that can appeal to anyone, so you should want and expect to see more women checking out your showroom.

 

The fastest way to kill that potential sale is to talk down to someone. And the reverse assumption is also dangerous: If you assume a man has a high level of tech knowledge and bombard him with overly complex specs and industry jargon, that can be just as off-putting. I personally would have nothing but respect for a salesperson who asks me what level of technical knowledge I have before showing me a piece of gear. Do I want high-level tech talk, do I want to keep it basic, or do I want something in between? It shows me that this salesperson is actively trying to avoid assumptions and wants to know more about me.

 

Another way specialty retailers can avoid bias is by hiring a more diverse staff—and not just in the accounting or purchasing departments. You need females on the show floor and out in the field. Every year, I attend the CEDIA trade show, which is where custom installers see and receive training on the latest AV and home-automation wares, and the vast majority of them are male. The luxury AV market lags far behind other consumer electronics categories like computers and gaming when it comes to gender diversity (or diversity in general, to be frank).

 

Show, Don’t Tell

No matter how tech-savvy a person is, they probably didn’t come into your store to see a box sitting idle on a display shelf and get a rundown of the specs. They can get that on the Internet. They came to experience something, and if you give them a good experience, you’re more likely to earn that sale.

 

I’ve read a lot of press releases over the years, and I can confidently state that reading about a cool, new feature is never as effective as seeing that feature in action. You read it on paper and think, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” But then you see a demo in action, and you’re like, “Okay, that’s awesome. I want that.”

I think the need to experience products and systems in action is especially important for women. As I wrote in a story many years ago  for HomeTheaterReview.com, women generally care more about the result than the process. While men may enjoying digging into the nuts and bolts of the particular pieces in an AV or home automation system, a woman is more likely to be swayed by the experiential result of all those pieces working in synergy. Let her experience the luxury of a luxury home cinema system—where the push of a button on a beautifully streamlined touchscreen controller dims lights, lowers 

I think the need to experience products and systems in action
is especially important
for women

shades, and queues up the perfect music or movie. Show her the many ways smart home products and an advanced control system can work together all around the house to make daily tasks easier.

 

To quote myself, “The best salesmen are equally deft at selling the process to the man and the result to the woman.”

 

Ease Up on the Upsell

Trust is the key to building long-term customers, and for me and most women I know, nothing destroys trust faster than the upsell.

 

I go to the same shop every time I need to get my car’s oil changed, because it was the one place that didn’t originally push me to deal with 10 others “problems” with my car when I brought it in. Now, when they say I really need to replace a certain filter, I trust that it’s true. Likewise, I won’t take my puppy to the vet that’s always pushing their own upscale product line of food and supplements. Or the dentist who’s always pushing elective procedures my insurance won’t cover.

 

And I won’t shop at a specialty AV retailer where I feel like they’re always trying to sell me more than I need or want. I know profit margins are lean these days, but if you can resist the urge to upsell now, it could pay dividends from a loyal customer in the long run.

 

Meet Them Where They’re At

Of course, the above suggestions are moot if there are no women to sell to. If you can’t get the female shoppers to come to you, consider taking the experience to them.

 

Specialty retailers will sometimes host listening events, where they invite people in to hear a hot new product. In my experience at these events, the audience is almost entirely male, and the demo usually takes place in a small, dark room in the back of the shop. This might be an effective way to appeal to the audio enthusiast, but you may need to think outside that box in order to get your product offerings in front of more women.

 

Consider partnering with a local gallery to show off both art and tech together. Or do an event at a local home goods store, where you can demo how custom home automation and smart products can improve your kitchen, living room, etc. Even getting a booth at the local street fair or farmer’s market to highlight some of the more basic products in your line can help get your name out there. Sometimes you have to start small. As I mentioned above, it’s all about building trust, and that might have to happen one smart speaker at a time.

—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.

Good Omens

Good Omens

Good vs Evil. Dark vs Light. Angels vs. Demons. These themes are the basis of almost every story ever written or told. But Good and Evil working together to prevent the apocalyptic end of the world because they’re comfortable in their day-to-day lives and have no desire to see them end? Such is Good Omens, a six-episode limited series co-produced by Amazon and BBC Studios.

 

The series is based upon the novel of the same name written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman back in 1990. There were adaptation attempts in the past, most notably with Terry Gilliam in the early aughts. But it didn’t become a personal mission until Pratchett asked Gaiman to adapt it to a TV show shortly before his death.

 

It follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) from the Garden of Eden to modern England. They try to subtly thwart the End Times and coming of the Antichrist who, through a mixup at the hospital, ends up in a lovely, idyllic English countryside hamlet unbeknownst to the powers of Heaven and Hell. There’s a wonderful supporting cast, including Frances McDormand (God), Jon Hamm (Gabriel), and Michael McKean (Sergeant Shadwell of The Witchfinder Army). The writing is witty and whimsical with a dash of irreverence—quintessential Pratchett and Gaiman (if you’re familiar with their work).

Good Omens

The subject matter made it into the news because of a petition by the Christian group Return to Order claiming the show is “another step to make satanism appear normal, light, and acceptable.” The group is pressuring Netflix to cancel the series.—the limited-run series that has already completed airing and doesn’t have a second season planned. And that’s on Amazon, not Netflix. There has been some lovely and entertaining back and forth on Twitter with Gaiman, Netflix, and Amazon. The petition has since been changed to name Amazon as the offender. If you might be upset with God being voiced by a woman, or with the four riders of the apocalypse being portrayed as a group of bikers, better to steer clear.

 

Otherwise, Good Omens is delightfully quirky. It is quite obvious that the actors are enjoying the material, and the chemistry between Sheen and Tennant is wonderful. The series isn’t perfect—there are some pacing issues in the first few episodes and some of the subplots fall flat—but I was consistently chuckling and smiling throughout. And the soundtrack includes Queen hits. (Crowley is a fan and plays them in his beautiful two-tone 1933 Bentley.) Can’t go wrong with Queen.

 

Amazon’s presentation is excellent. It is available in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (although hard to find in a search, as with all Amazon selections currently). The colors look vibrant and the English countryside is especially welcoming—save for the Antichrist, of course. The sound is mixed well, with judicious use of the surround channels and consistently clear dialogue.

 

If you’re familiar with the work of Pratchett (the expansive Discworld series) and Gaiman (Sandman comic, Neverwhere, American Gods), Good Omens is a delightful jaunt towards Armageddon led by standout performances by Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Their scenes alone make the show worthwhile.

John Higgins

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

Demo Scenes: Batman Returns

Demo Scenes: Batman Returns
“The Penguin Visits His Parents’ Grave”
(Chapter 7, 40:24–43:01)

 

There seems to be some sort of weird consensus that a compelling AV demo scene must be action-packed, or at the very least loud. One of my favorite things about the new UHD/HDR release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is that it handily dispels this notion. In fact, it flips it right on its head.

 

Sure, the movie has its rousing battles and feats of impossible athletics, especially in the tête-à-tête throwdown between Batman and Catwoman. But the film’s most compelling sequences, at least from the perspective of audio and visual spectacle, are its quieter moments. Indeed, its weirder moments.

 

One of my favorites comes at the start of Chapter 7 in the Kaleidescape download or UHD Blu-ray release, from 40:24 to 43:01. The Penguin—aka Oswald Cobblepot, played so spectacularly by Danny DeVito—visits the grave of the parents who

abandoned him in his infancy. Plot-wise, it’s such a simple scene: The Penguin waddles through the graveyard, places a pair of black roses on the ground, waddles back to the gate, and monologues in front of the gathered press.

 

The way the scene is photographed, though, and especially the way it’s presented in Ultra HD with HDR, make it a bona fide feast for the eyes. It’s easy to forget that even in its initial theatrical release, audiences never saw Batman Returns presented this pristinely. The limitations of film prints, combined with the shortcomings of commercial projection, mean that we’ve never—until now—experienced the film with its blacks this black, nor its highlights this spectacular.

 

The interplay of dark and light makes each frame look like a chiaroscuro painting. Your eye can’t help but to be drawn to the finest of details—the individual hairs on the Penguin’s head, the little glint of piercing light in the middle of his coal-black eyes. Simply put, it’s a little discombobulating to see such razor sharpness and startling contrasts from a film shot in the analog era.

It’s worth comparing this scene to other nighttime shots in recent shows like Game of Thrones. Rather than pointing the camera into darkness and hoping you get the picture, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky used stark blue lighting, not to repel the shadows, but to give them something to work against. The laser-focused beams of illumination make the darkness look that much darker, the blacks that much blacker, the textures that much more tactile.

 

Not to be outdone by the spectacular imagery, the new Atmos mix also positively shines in this scene. Danny Elfman’s iconic score is delivered with deep, rich, bombastic bass and sparkling detail. And when the music falls away, the howling, haunting whirl of wind that fills the void whips and wanders from wall to wall and floor to ceiling in a way that’s downright spooky, but utterly engrossing.

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.

Batman Returns

Batman Returns

I’ve never been a big fan of shibboleths—those words or catch-phrases designed to set members of an in-group apart from outsiders. Especially in today’s geek culture, the use of such exclusionary memes seems unnecessarily divisive. But I’ll admit, I do have my own shorthand way of identifying my people: I simply work into casual conversation the observation that 1992’s Batman Returns is a better and more interesting film than the 1989 original.

 

What I love most about this revelation is the looks I get in response. At one end of the spectrum, you have the folks who gape at me as if I’ve just licked their nostrils. At the other end, there’s a spark of realization, a look in the eye that says, “You get it!”

 

What generally follows—with the latter folk, at least—is a lengthy discussion about why. Why Batman Returns is everything Batman should have been. Why it has stood the test of time in a way the original hasn’t. Without hours to dig into all of it here, though, I’ll have to merely scratch the surface.

Simply put, whereas Batman—much as I love that film—is primarily a product, its weird and wonderful sequel is a genuine work of art. An aesthetic, thematic, and tonal expression that actually has something to say, and stands up to legitimate re-interpretation as the years pass and the weirdness of our own world finally catches up in so many ways to the macabre and gothic political tale Tim Burton wove in this most anticipated of sequels. And surprisingly, very little of that has to do with the fact that Max Shreck—Returnstertiary antagonist, played by Christopher Walken in all his scenery-chewing glory—is a nasty, narcissistic, big-city tycoon with underhanded political ambitions and a feint of concern for the common man.

 

In any other comic-book film, Walken really would have stolen the show. But the real standouts here are Danny DeVito as a deliciously disgusting re-interpretation of The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer, who simply makes Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, her own.

 

If I had to guess, I’d say one of the reasons why Batman Returns was mistakenly written off as an inferior sequel in its day is the heavy emphasis on its villains—delightful as they are—to the exclusion of the titular hero, who almost shrinks into the background as a mysterious boogeyman. Or perhaps it’s simply that this film is so dramatically different from the one it follows, almost having more in common with Burton’s criminally underappreciated Edward Scissorhands, which he made in between his two Batman efforts.

 

None of this is to say that Batman Returns is perfect, mind you. Some of its dialogue falls flat, even if only by contrast 

with the sheer brilliance of other one-liners. And Keaton at times seems bored to be wearing the cape and cowl for a second time. But if, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen Batman Returns since its debut, you owe it another look. And there’s no better way to do so than the new UHD/HDR release on Kaleidescape.

 

To say that the film has never looked as striking as it does here would be a banal understatement. The improvements over previous home video releases simply cannot be summed up in a handful of paragraphs. The additional detail over the Blu-ray release from 2010 is jaw-dropping from beginning to end, but it’s the HDR grade that truly brings this film to life.

Batman Returns

Unlike Batman, which is a way more visually vibrant film than most people remember it being, Returns is genuinely stygian throughout, and the enhanced contrasts, shadow detail, and depth afforded by HDR give the streets of Gotham and the sewers beneath a depth and richness I don’t remember seeing even in the film’s original big-screen release. The new transfer also makes wonderful use of highlights, mostly to bring vivid clarity to the film’s diverse textures—especially in contrasting the dull, matte darkness of Batman’s costume with the gleaming, slick blackness of Catwoman’s getup.

 

The enhanced dynamic range also elevates narrative elements of the film, such as the scene in which Penguin crawls out of the sewers for the first time and is blinded by the strobing of camera flashes. Those bright flashes aren’t quite eye-reactive, but they are stark enough to illuminate Penguin’s discomfort and give the viewer some small taste of his experience.

 

I’ll admit, I was concerned going in that the HDR would do no favors to the film’s numerous matte-painted cityscapes. But since the film is in many ways shot like a play whose audience is dragged from stage to stage at a frantic pace, the fact that you can now more easily see the seams in spots actually adds to the film’s charms in an appropriately weird way. Aside from a handful of optically composited effects, Batman Returns looks like it could have been shot yesterday. By a madman,

to be sure—and certainly not funded by any major motion picture studio outside of perhaps Netflix—but yesterday nonetheless.

 

As for the sound, unlike the UHD/HDR release of Batman, the new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t introduce any re-recorded sound effects, largely because it doesn’t need to. The sound elements still hold up as shockingly modern and incredibly robust, and the Atmos mix simply draws atmospheric elements and bits of Danny Elfman’s iconic score into the height dimension.

 

I have to say, if this is the direction Hollywood is heading with Atmos mixes, either new or re-mixed, I might have to rethink my curmudgeonly stance on the format. The new mix never whaps you over the head with kitschy audio grandstanding. Instead, it’s used largely to build the film’s environments, to give a distinct sonic signature to interiors like the Batcave and the Penguin’s underground lair. In other words, it draws you into and reinforces the onscreen action rather than distracting from it.

 

One other thing worth noting about the new Kaleidescape release of the film is that it’s the only digital release of the UHD/HDR remaster to include bonus features, aside from the iTunes download. Vudu, Amazon, and others have

Batman Returns

released movie-only versions that sell the film short, in my opinion. On Kaleidescape, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film to get the bonus goodies, and said goodies are only available in standard-definition, since they were originally created for DVD. But it’s worth the extra effort. The supplements are a continuation of those created for Batman, and give a nice inside look at the making of the film, especially its effects, set designs, etc.

 

I wish Burton’s commentary had also been attached to the UHD/HDR version, instead of merely supplementing the Blu-ray-quality version, since it’s a worthwhile listen, and having seen the film in all its 4K glory, it’s hard now to watch it in mere high-definition. But if nothing else, doing so gives one a greater appreciation of just how incredible the new restoration is.

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.

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

I think we can all agree that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films is the greatest series of superhero films yet produced, with the middle film—The Dark Knight—transcending the superhero genre to just being a great film, and with Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning turn as The Joker representing some of the best acting ever in a superhero film.

 

And you could make a strong argument that, if not for Tim Burton’s Batman reboot in 1989, we would have never had Nolan’s films 20 years later. Remember, back in 1989 superhero films were mainly limited to Superman, with the notable exception of 1980’s Flash Gordon. And Superman’s final film to that point—the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987—didn’t exactly end the series on a high note, financially or critically. 

 

Also, superhero stories to that point were mostly light, geared towards attracting families with kids. They drew clear lines of good guys and bad guys. Think of the original Batman TV series with Adam West. It dripped with camp and positive 

messages, with Batman never crossing the line into dark vigilantism.

 

Up until 1989, that was the Batman the majority of the world knew.

 

But Warner Bros. decided to create a tentpole franchise around the Bat, featuring a dark style inspired by Frank Miller’s four-part The Dark Knight Returns comic series from 1986. They also selected an unlikely director, going with Tim Burton, who was fresh off the success of Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but who had few other credits to his name, and certainly nothing on the size, scope, and budget allocated to Batman.

 

But hiring Burton proved fortuitous, as he bought into the idea of a darkly-toned film, with his own quirky sensibility, style, and world-building being just the thing to launch a darker vision of Gotham.

 

Another thing that separated Batman from previous films was its unique marketing and merchandising, which was 

designed to build hype and launch the film to blockbuster status. Sure, there had been blockbusters before, but many of these were “accidental” such as Jaws or Star Wars, or were sequels. Batman was for all intents and purposes an original film, but one with a storied history to pull from.

 

An interesting documentary, Batman: The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster (included on the previous “Diamond Luxe Edition” Blu-ray, but unfortunately not part of the numerous extras included here) does a great job of analyzing the film’s marketing efforts to raise Bat awareness to a fever pitch. And I can recall my own excitement surrounding the film. In the summer of 1989, it was the film all my friends and I had to attend, and we waited hours in line to view it in a packed opening-night theater.

 

The strategy definitely paid off, as Batman shattered opening-weekend records, bringing in $40.49 million and trouncing the previous record holder, Ghostbusters II, by over $12 million. Batman also earned $100 million faster than any previous film, doing so in just 11 days, and ended up grossing over $410 million, becoming one of the highest-grossing films to that time.

Batman (1989)

While everyone seemed thrilled at the prospect of Jack Nicholson portraying The Joker (including Warner, which agreed to some incredible demands by the actor, including not filming during any Lakers home games), fans were considerably less supportive of Michael Keaton’s casting in the titular role. But I think Keaton did a great job, especially with his quirky, slightly-uncomfortable-in-public turn as Bruce Wayne, and feel he’s the second best of the modern Bat-men, behind Christian Bale, but ahead of Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Val Kilmer—and with no WTF?! distracting nipples on the Bat-suit.

 

I’ve seen Batman numerous times, but what I mainly remember is watching it on a VHS copy and constantly struggling to see any detail in the image. Many scenes are so dark, I would constantly fiddle with my TV’s brightness control to try to find the optimal level between washed out and lost in darkness.

 

For me, that is the greatest benefit 4K HDR brings to the 30th-anniversary release. Dark, nighttime, and low-lit interior scenes—of which there are many—look absolutely gorgeous. Blacks are incredibly clean and detailed, with no noise or banding. Warner did a fantastic job on this restoration, allowing you to see things that were likely never visible before, especially on any prior home video release. There are still plenty of deep, dark shadows, with many scenes featuring black-on-black-on-black imagery, between the night, set color, layers of black on Batman’s suit, the black uniforms worn by The Joker’s henchmen, and more, but each retains its own level and layer of black. Batman is still a visually dark film, but now you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.

 

Also, even though this 4K transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate from the original 35mm negative—which can often introduce grain and noise into certain scenes—grain is almost non-existent here. Even in outdoor scenes or when there is lots of smoke wafting in the air, images are always clean and clear.

 

Detail also abounds, letting you really appreciate the art and set decoration for which the film won an Academy Award. Great care was taken to create a believable Gotham, and this transfer lets you see all of it. You can really notice the texture of the fabrics—the heavy wools of The Joker’s suits and overcoats; the dense, leathery weightiness of Batman’s cape; the smooth metallic shell of the Batmobile; and the high-tech carbon-looking skin of the Bat-wing. Also, I noticed for the first time that the buttons on The Joker’s suit near the end of the film actually have all the playing-card suits on them—another subtle touch the enhanced resolution makes apparent. The minor drawback to all this extra resolution is that some shots reveal themselves to be matte paintings, but that’s a small price to pay.

Being such a dark film, there’s not a lot of room for the wider color gamut to shine, but some scenes do benefit, such as the flames in the explosion of the Axis Chemicals plant or the brilliant purples of The Joker’s numerous suits, and especially his beret in the museum scene. The warm golden tones in Bruce Wayne’s mansion also feel extremely natural.

 

From the opening moments, Danny Elfman’s score really has room to breathe and shine in this new Dolby True HD Atmos mix. The opening-title scene presents his score wide and crystal clear across the front channels, letting you easily discern all of the instrumentation. While I wouldn’t call this an overly active mix, Atmos does a really nice job of expanding the soundstage, especially in key scenes throughout the film. I noticed a ton of width in the front channels, with objects traveling great distances outside the left and right speakers.

 

The overhead and surround speakers are used effectively throughout to create ambience and atmospheric sounds on the city streets of Gotham, or add layers of echoes in the spacious and stately Wayne Manor. During big action scenes, such as the gunfight at Axis Chemicals or the Bat-wing swooping over The Joker’s  

Batman (1989)

parade near the end, the speakers effectively and appropriately immerse you in sound, with things whisking by overhead, bullets ricocheting around the room, or voices calling from distant offscreen locations. Considering that this is a 30-year-old sound mix, Warner did a stellar job.

 

If there’s any shortcoming to the audio, it’s that the LFE is generally a bit restrained, especially by modern standards. Bass has its moments to shine, like during the explosion at the Axis Chemicals factory, but there are other key moments—like the massive destruction of the tower bell near the finale —where a few extra dB in the bass channel would have been welcome.

 

Both the Blu-ray disc and the digital download from the Kaleidescape Store include numerous special features, letting fans dig into multiple aspects of the film’s production and design, and the history of Batman.

 

Batman set the stage for the modern superhero genre, and it has never looked or sounded as good as it does here. While not as great at Nolan’s films—and arguably not even the best of Burton’s Batman films—this movie still makes for terrifically fun viewing and is highly recommended.

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.

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?
What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

What goes into crafting a luxury home entertainment system—a room for watching movies and TV, and maybe even playing video games, with performance that rivals the best commercial cinemas but with an aesthetic that’s all your own? That last part, of course, is totally up to you and your interior designer. But if you’re looking for some help understanding what’s involved in creating a luxury system before you meet with an integrator to help you pull it all together, you’ve come to the right place.

 

The aim here is to give you just enough information to convey the basic requirements for an uncompromising home entertainment system with exceptional fit & finish and unparalleled ease of use, while also giving you a baseline to judge one product against another. We’ll also highlight recent advancements in home entertainment, in case you haven’t

looked into any of this in a while.

 

In future posts, we’ll dig deeper into the specifics of each component for those of you who want to know more, but for now we’re keeping the discussion deliberately high-level, so you won’t feel weighed down by too much information.

 

With that said, let’s start digging into the elements of a luxury home entertainment system and some of the basic decisions involved in buying one.

 

 

TV or Projector?

One of the most important decisions is whether to go with a TV or a projection system. It might be hard to believe, because many people—including a lot of dealers—think a projector and screen represent the ultimate viewing experience, but today’s TVs almost always deliver better image quality. They’re consistently brighter than projection systems, with better contrast and clarity.

 

Mind you, that doesn’t mean you should rule out a

projection system, especially if you want a screen larger than 85 inches or so. In that case, you’ll probably want to go with a projector, even if your entertainment space isn’t a pitch-black man cave. Today’s ambient-light-rejection screens and brighter projectors mean you can enjoy a reasonably vibrant image in nearly any room.

 

Seriously, though, if what you really want is a world-class TV instead of a projector and screen, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

Samsung’s JU7100F Series 7 85-inch 4K UHD TV 

Speakers

Chances are you’re looking for the level of deeper immersion only Dolby Atmos and DTS:X surround sound can provide. If so, you need to decide how many speakers you want in your room. The good news is, you can pack a lot more into a space than you might think because architectural speakers—that is to say in-wall and in-ceiling offerings that are practically invisible—have come a long way in terms of performance. A decade ago, most architectural models were glorified elevator speakers, perfectly fine for background music but not home cinema. The best ones today can deliver a listening experience on par with the best in-room offerings.

 

But what if you actually like the look of speakers and want to make them part of your décor? There’s good news in this department, too. At the luxury level, many manufacturers offer freestanding models that are stunning statements in design, with a wide range of finishes and even in some cases the option to specify your own finish.

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

Wisdom Audio’s P38i in-wall speaker

some of the finishes available for
Focal’s Kanta speakers

Electronics

There’s a good chance you’ve given up on discs entirely and now consume most of your video entertainment via streaming. If that’s the case, you definitely want to add a good media streamer to your system, since the apps built into smart TVs often leave something to be desired. The Roku Ultra, by contrast, can deliver an AV experience so comparable to UHD Blu-ray discs that you might not be able to tell the difference.

 

But even the best 4K streaming can’t provide the ultimate viewing experience. For that, you need something like a Kaleidescape movie player, which can deliver better picture and sound than UHD Blu-ray—but that’s actually not the most compelling thing about it. Its strongest asset is its super-intuitive user interface, which lets you easily find and download what you want to watch. And since films are stored locally, your collection will be available to watch even when your ‘net connection gets glitchy. It’s also a fully monitored, bulletproof piece of hardware that delivers a level of dependability that something like Apple TV just can’t match.

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

Kaleidescape’s Strato S movie player

What about the most boring part of any home entertainment system, though? Yup, you’re going to need a surround sound preamp—the anonymous black box that basically acts as the air traffic controller for your media room or home theater, routing audio and video signals where they need to go and also giving you volume control and so forth.

 

That’s not all preamps do, though. The biggest differentiator between them is their room correction software, which, just a few years ago, tended to do more harm than good. But the latest correction systems—when set up by someone who understands room acoustics—mean you don’t need to have a perfectly symmetrical space filled with acoustical treatments to get reference-quality audio. Done right, correction can compensate for problems with room acoustics and make what once would have been considered just a passable space sound exceptional.

Steinway Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect room correction system

Control

Of course, no one wants to have a coffee tableful of remote controls. But if you’re tempted to get a simple universal remote for a system this sophisticated, think again. Even the best of these struggle to elegantly operate a robust entertainment system, much less the other essential components of a good media room, like lights and shades and comfort control.

 

You’re going to want a custom-programmed control and automation system. Granted, you might recoil from that suggestion if you went down that path 10 or so years ago and paid a king’s ransom for a cluttered and confusing system no one in the house could operate. Today’s custom systems are much more flexible and intuitive, better designed, more reliable, and considerably less expensive. And they can transform virtually any space from “comfy family room” to “movie-watching paradise” at the touch of a button.

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

the Control4 system interface

Mind you, simply buying and installing all of the above won’t necessarily result in a luxury home entertainment space. A lot of the magic comes from how it’s all configured, designed, programmed, and integrated into your lifestyle. And that comes from entering into a creative collaboration with your designer and your installer. But the above should give you a solid idea of the sorts of components you’ll need. And in future posts, we’ll dig a little deeper into standout examples from each category and what makes each of them luxury.

Dennis Burger

RELATED POSTS

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.

Ep. 9: New Frontiers in Content & Compression

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Episode 9 opens with hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger talking about Dennis’s piece
on the surprisingly high quality of 4K streaming when watched using the right device.

 

At 6:18, Cineluxe contributor Andrew Robinson joins Mike & Dennis to discuss how Netflix
might be a threat to both the TV networks & the movie studios but the really innovative
programming isn’t happening on Netflix but on YouTube.

 

At 33:22, Cineluxe contributor John Higgins joins Andrew, Dennis & Mike to discuss the
controversy set off by the literally unwatchable Game of Thrones “Long Night” episode
and whether we can expect to see compression problems disappear any time soon.

 

The episode concludes at 59:20 with everyone (except Mike) talking about the most
interesting things they’re watched, listened to, or experienced in the past two weeks.

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

RELATED POSTS

RELATED EPISODES

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.

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

The Natural

The Natural

Widely regarded as one of the best sports films ever made, The Natural celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with a full 4K HDR restoration and newly remixed Dolby Atmos soundtrack, available now both on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and download from the Kaleidescape Store.

 

This continues the recent trend of re-releasing classic fare in fresh new Ultra HD resolution transfers, as we’ve recently enjoyed the 30-year anniversary release of Field of Dreams, the 35-year release of The Karate Kid, and a spectacular 40-year anniversary release of Alien.

 

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and The Natural has been fully restored from the original 35mm

camera negative, supervised and approved by both director of photography Caleb Deschanel and director Barry Levinson.

 

Nominated for four Academy Awards in 1985—Best Cinematography (Deschanel), Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), Best Original Score (Randy Newman), and Art Direction—The Natural was based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, which I’ll admit to disliking immensely. Where Malamud made Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) bitter and wholly unlikable, Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry’s screenplay instead makes him a likable, believable character who just caught a bad break, making him easy to root for, especially when played by Redford with his signature easygoing charm.

 

I can’t imagine too many readers not being familiar with the story, but I’ll keep it spoiler-free just in case. Hobbs discovers an almost superhuman “natural” talent for baseball growing up, and carves himself a bat named “Wonderboy” from a mighty oak tree struck by lightning outside his home. He leaves his childhood sweetheart Iris (Close) to pursue his dream of joining the majors, but just as he is about to get his big break, he has a chance encounter with a Babe Ruth-esque character named The Whammer (Joe Don Baker), which results in an even more tragic encounter with Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), who could best be described as a sports super-fan psycho killer.

 

Sixteen years later, Hobbs once again gives baseball a go after a scout signs him to join the struggling New York Knights. Manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) takes an

instant dislike to Hobbs due to his age, but ultimately gives him a chance, at which point Hobbs’ near-mystical baseball abilities lift the team toward hopes of winning the pennant.

 

The Natural has a bit of a supernatural feel to it and asks you to check your skepticism at the door. Hobbs has essentially two modes—homerun or strike out—and these are often directly impacted by his moral decisions at the time. Stay on the straight and narrow, good things happen, but allow yourself to be distracted by booze and dames in the form of Kim Basinger’s Memo Paris, and you’ll face struggles. But the story, the acting, and the cinematography are all so good, it’s easy to get swept up in the tale, and you can’t help but get chills during the film’s climax.

 

Visually, The Natural is an absolute treat. As mentioned previously, Sony knows how to lovingly restore old films to their greatest potential, and this is another winner. Early on, you can see all of the wood grain and detail in Wonderboy, and every 

The Natural

stitch in the Glen plaid pattern of The Whammer’s suit. The detail lets you feel the wooly texture of the ball uniforms, even seeing the pilling.

 

Closeups show tremendous detail, with incredible sharpness and depth. One example is the image of Iris’s hat shown at left, which, sadly, the pixel structure of my camera doesn’t do justice. This image features almost single-pixel fine detail that holds up without any jaggies or loss of resolution. Powdery-blue skies often create issues with noise and grain from older film stock, and that is evident in some scenes, but not overly so.

 

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Deschanel’s cinematography as a younger viewer, or perhaps it was just because it 

wasn’t allowed to truly shine on previous home video releases, but here we are treated to sumptuous golden hues and sunbathed tones in early scenes, as well as carefully lit interiors (likely to help disguise the actual ages of stars Redford and 

Close). Lighting is used to create deep shadows in many scenes, to conceal detail and reveal just what is intended, and here HDR does a great job keeping black levels clean. This is especially evident in the dugout scenes and the conversations between Hobbs and The Judge (Robert Prosky) in his dark office. Bright outdoor scenes also benefit from HDR’s boost, with exploding Klieg lights having extra punch.

 

I was surprised by how much the new Atmos mix elevated the audio experience. Right from the opening scene, it is used to expand the room’s size and atmosphere, placing you in a train station with all the surrounding sounds and noises. This continues through other outdoor scenes and those at the ballpark, where audio is lifted overhead and around you to smartly place you in the action. One nice use of the overhead speakers was when Chicago’s El train goes charging overhead. Bass is also used judiciously to add just the right amount of dynamic energy to key scenes.

 

The new audio mix also helps you to appreciate Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated score, and I felt I could hear hints of musical themes heard in his later work, such as Toy Story. Also, voices are clear and easy to understand, vitally important in a dialogue-driven film.

The Natural

Both the Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download feature numerous special features that will keep film buffs busy for hours. These include “When Lightning Strikes,” “Pre-Game—A Novelist Steps Up to the Plate,” “The Line-Up—Assembling the Moviemaking Team,” “Let’s Play Ball—Filming the Show,” “Clubhouse Conversations,” “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus,” and “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural.

 

The Natural is a fantastic film the definitely holds up 35 years later, and this new release makes for a spectacular evening’s entertainment. Highly recommended.

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.

What Did We Learn from the “GoT” Debacle?

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

The impenetrable darkness of “The Long Night”

It was a simpler time before April 28, 2019. The Khaleesi was going to be the savior of Westeros, Disney was on their way to owning all of us, and Joe’s Pizza in the Village had the best slice. While two of those things might still be true, they don’t matter anymore because we now live in a post-“The Long Night” world, a world where terms like H.264 and megabits per second are no longer muttered about only on tech blogs but discussed out in the open around water coolers (is that still a thing?) Now that the dust has settled a bit from the Game of Thrones kerfuffle, what are some of the things that came to light out of the darkness of that long night?

 

 

Lesson 1:  Public Enemy No. 1—Compression

If you haven’t realized it from the discussion here at Cineluxe over the past month, compression has become a hot-button issue—for good reason. GoT fans were confronted with Lego-like picture artifacts for the duration of the 82-minute “Long Night” episode, and they’re not happy about it.

 

While the video quality of home viewing has increased dramatically over the past few years with 4K UHD becoming more mainstream and the latest TVs allowing for great-looking HDR and far more vibrant colors, compression hasn’t always kept up. For years, H.264 (also called AVC) was king, and really, still is. It can compress video all the way up to 8K resolution, and has been tweaked to include support for wide color gamut and HDR, and to produce smaller file sizes. But it just can’t create files small enough for efficient delivery through the current pipelines without leading to the kinds of problems that were amply on display in “The Long Night.”

 

You probably read Andrew Robinson’s take on H.265 (aka HEVC) as the next step forward. With H.265, a 1080p signal only requires a 3 Mbps bitrate as opposed to H.264’s 6 Mbps. And a 4K signal needs less than half of H.264’s bitrate—15 vs. 32 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Mbps. But, as Andrew mentioned, not everything is currently equipped to handle and decode H.265-compressed video. In addition to needing significantly fewer bits per second, H.265 does a better job with motion compensation.

 

I should stress that the Mbps numbers listed above are truly bare 

minimums, and at those rates you’ll likely see image issues. Netflix, which uses H.265 for all of its 4K content, recommends a minimum 25 Mbps connection for streaming.

 

Speaking of Netflix, they’re at the forefront of experimenting with new, better codecs for 4K streaming. As a result, you can expect to hear some new acronyms like VP9 and AV1 in the coming years. AV1 in particular promises to deliver HEVC-level quality while using even fewer bits.

 

 

Lesson 2:  It’s (probably) not your TV

The cinematographer for “The Long Night,” Fabian Wagner, found himself on the defensive after the uproar and, in addition to (rightly) blaming HBO’s compression, also blamed viewers and their TVs. “A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he told Wired UK.

 

Technically, that is correct. The vast majority of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly. Luckily, they don’t really need to. Most TVs over the past couple years priced more than $500 come out of the factory looking really good and don’t

necessarily need to be calibrated. (But I would still recommend calibration for any mid-to-high-end TV, to make sure you’re getting that absolute most out of it.)

 

One thing Mr. Wagner brought up that has some merit is people’s tendency to watch TV with their lights on. Even minimal lighting can have an impact on your ability to see shadow detail in a darkly filmed scene, especially if you have an older LCD TV with mediocre black levels. So one quick fix for a murky picture might be to just turn off any extra light in you room.

 

If you want to make sure your TV is in the best viewing mode—and you haven’t had it calibrated—don’t, for the love of Werner Herzog, ever put it in Vivid (aka “Torch”) mode. Go for Cinema, or Calibrated, or Movie. These will generally have the best color accuracy and contrast/backlight/ dimming zones setting, and won’t include the bane of video reviewers everywhere—the “soap opera effect.”

 

 

Lesson 3:  The apps you use (and the device they’re on) matter

You can expect the quality and user experience to differ from one app to the next, since they’re all made by different companies that generally aren’t keen on sharing development secrets. But there can even be performance issues with the same app on different platforms—as Dennis Burger recently described in his article about the Netflix app. I have to admit, that revelation was a bit of a shock to me. The idea that a seemingly identical app could perform vastly differently through different platforms was a big surprise. Some variation is to be expected, but I would have thought it would be more of an academic argument than a bunch of extra artifacts on one app version over the other. Trying the Netflix app on a different platform could help clear up any artifacts you might be experiencing.

 

But this piece is really about how HBO screwed up. And if you’re watching HBO through your cable or satellite service, you’re dependent on the hardware they provide, which might not be offering state-of-the-art resolution support. For instance, if you haven’t replaced you DirecTV HDR in the past couple years, it might still top out at 1080i resolution. Signing into the HBO GO app (or the NOW app, if you’re streaming only) should guarantee 1080p support.

 

 

Lesson 4:  Choose your viewing window wisely

“The Long Night” had 17.8 million viewers when it initially aired over all delivery media, including cable, satellite, HBO NOW, and HBO GO. That was a new record for HBO, so 

congratulations are in order, I suppose. But with such a concurrent draw on the servers, the quality of the stream suffered. This severely exacerbated the already present compression artifacts, to the point of making the show unwatchable—hence the Twitter eruption that night and the next day. I watched portions of the episode a few more times that week after the viewing tide subsided to see if there was any improvement, and while the artifacts weren’t gone, they were much less obvious.

Lesson 5:  Aesthetic choices matter too

Why did the Internet hordes descend on Fabian Wagner? It’s rare that a cinematographer needs to come out from behind the camera to defend himself, but that episode was dark—intentionally so. It was his conception (in collaboration with the director) that was on the screen, after all, and people were upset they couldn’t see it. A hugely anticipated battle scene where you can’t see anything? Preposterous. In contrast, take a look at another famous nighttime battle—The Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. That place was lit up like a Christmas tree—or, more accurately, a huge amount of blue light that gave the feel of the moon. The whole sequence was masterfully shot.

 

That doesn’t mean “The Long Night” was shot wrong, just different. In fact, the move toward really dark seems to be a bit of a recent trend. In the spring of 2018, a little movie called Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, used a low-light approach much like Fabian Wagner’s to accentuate the shadows and grime of Han Solo’s earlier 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Solo: A Star Wars Story—into the darkness of the Maw

years. Complaints on the Internet were everywhere (for a Star Wars movie, go figure . . .) because many theaters, even in major markets, weren’t properly calibrated, which led to a lack of shadow detail. I happily didn’t run into that issue here in Los Angeles, and now regularly use Solo as a test disc for the gritty sabacc scenes and the darkness of the Falcon flying through the Maw.

 

 

What’s next?

Now that “The Longest Night” has brought the conversation out into the open, everything is solved and we don’t need to worry about encountering these problems ever again, right? Nope. Not by a long shot. It’s wonderful that we’re talking about what went wrong, but it’s going to take a while for the technology and the people who implement it to catch up.

 

Even though the first version of H.264 was completed in 2003, it didn’t really achieve widespread adoption until a decade later. The HEVC standard was ratified in 2013, and Netflix implemented it for 4K delivery in 2016, but it’s only recently begun to catch on elsewhere. If all of that is any indication, AV1 (which was released last year) won’t be in wide use for at least a couple of years.

 

And low-light cinematography isn’t going away, nor should it. But for HBO and their use of H.264, it does mean that grayscale banding in dark scenes will continue to be apparent. (We’ve already seen it again at the end of Episode 2 of HBO’s Chernobyl.)

 

The most we can do is make sure our TVs aren’t in Vivid mode, the lights are all turned off, and we’re using the best version of our streaming app we can.

John Higgins

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