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Chernobyl

Chernobyl (HBO)

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

 

It was just meant to be a safety test, but something went horribly wrong. The failsafe button was pushed, the power output spiked to astronomical levels, and then the building shook. Nuclear reactors don’t explode. Nuclear reactors can’t explode. But the terror on the faces around the control room revealed a different truth—a truth that must be, one that defied the tenets of nuclear science believed by these men.

 

That opening line from HBO’s limited mini-series Chernobyl could be as pertinent in today’s politics-vs-science climate as on April 26, 1986. Over five terrifying episodes, we’ve learned about the multiple issues—including suppression of information about the flaws in the reactor design and inadequately trained workers—that inevitably led to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

 

Chernobyl went surprisingly under the radar for the first few weeks of its broadcast, probably because it overlapped with the last couple episodes of the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones. Average viewership was around 1 million per episode in the US. One can only hope that the number increases via streaming as award buzz grows, because this show strongly deserves it. The script by showrunner Craig “Don’t judge me just by The Hangover” Mazin is excellent, the performances by the whole cast—and especially Jared Harris—are Emmy-worthy, and the practical effects of the radiation exposure victims are perfectly repulsive.

 

But the unsung star for me is the haunting score by Icelandic composer and cellist, Hilder Guðnadóttir, who incorporated recordings she collected with collaborator Sam Slater from a power plant in Lithuania, near the filming location, in her composition. They add a creepy, otherworldly element to the terrifying story presentation.

 

Chernobyl also has its own podcast, hosted by Peter Sagal of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, with episodes devoted to each episode of the series. Sagal speaks with Mazin about the show’s themes, characters, and where the creators chose to take poetic license. (Chernobyl is a narrative show, after all.)

Chernobyl (HBO)

Since the only way to currently see Chernobyl is by streaming it through HBO, presentation is limited to 1080p and Dolby Digital. There are some compression artifacts notable in dark scenes. Two examples that come to mind are during the opening when the reactor explosion is seen from a distance against the night sky, and also when three workers descend into the darkness of the plant days after the explosion to open water valves. The sound design incorporates the 5.1 channels well during both of those scenes.  But this is primarily a dialogue-driven series, so about the only time any amount of information is sent to the surrounds is during the disaster.

 

Hopefully sometime soon— after Chernobyl presumably wins some awards—HBO will release the Blu-ray UHD version the show deserves. Although at the rate they network’s going, we’ll be lucky to get it before the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is deemed safe for the living.

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.

Will Enthusiasts Ever Learn to Love Smart Tech?

Yesterday, I posted a video on my YouTube channel discussing the smart speaker revolution, and why they and other powered smart devices are the absolute future of specialty AV. I knew this stance was going to be “controversial,” for if there is one thing enthusiasts love, it’s their equipment. In truth, promise an enthusiast an ounce of style and/or convenience and you’re bound to get a stern talkin’ to. Much in the way our grandparents always had to walk up hill in the snow in

order to get to school or work, audiophile and home theater enthusiasts believe giant amps, countless wires, and complicated subroutines are simply what’s necessary in order to achieve, well, something.

 

If you’re triggered by the thought of your precious amplifier, preamp, DAC, or even display having to grow up and work for its supper in 2019, then I would encourage you to stop reading, for what I’m going to say next is bound to put you in the fetal position. You’ve been warned.

 

Wires are stupid.

 

It’s 2019, people. We have self-driving cars. We have super computers in our pockets and augmented reality that can virtually drop us or an object anywhere we want in an instant. Yet there are those among us who believe an argument over Class AB

Will Enthusiasts Ever Learn to Love Smart Tech?

Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo (above) and Bass (below) smart speakers

Will Enthusiasts Ever Learn to Love Smart Tech?

versus Class D amps is relevant. When did home theater—a hobby supposedly made up of technology enthusiasts—turn into The Antiques Roadshow?

 

Case in point, in my video I talked about a month-long experiment I’m trying whereby I’m going to only enjoy my music and movies via some form of wireless connection and/or connectivity to see if it’s possible. This means my display, a 75-inch Sony X950G UltraHD TV, is serving as the primary hub for a 2.1-channel entertainment system. My speakers—Bowers & Wilkins’ new Formation Duo and Formation Bass—are “connected” to the Sony via a Bluetooth connection.

 

In other words, I’m forgoing a receiver or processor, power amp, and all necessary cables needed between them. I am a vinyl enthusiast, so not wanting to go without my beloved records, I opted for a turntable with Bluetooth capability as well. Total number of cables . . . four. Total number of devices to enjoy said entertainment . . . four. Four down from nine. Had I gone with Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation soundbar, we’d be talking about three components total!

 

A day into the experiment, and already I’m feeling like going back to the “old” way of doing things is going to be difficult. It likely will be as difficult for me to give up as it is

proving to be for my audience to accept. For the mere thought of not being able to pontificate about the pros and cons of buying a new amplifier or processor is proving too much for some. Nevertheless, what I’m describing is without question the future of everything AV, which begs the question: Are the enthusiasts currently charged with this industry’s survival going to be the ones who ultimately kill it when they prove incapable of embracing change?

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.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon 3

The Hidden World is the third and final film in the How to Train Your Dragon series. It has been five long years since last we saw Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his beloved dragon Toothless on the big screen. If you followed any of the off-screen drama surrounding The Hidden World, you know that the film’s release was pushed back multiple times—partially due to the financial woes and restructuring of DreamWorks, but also due to script concerns. Apparently it took a few passes to nail the landing, but The Hidden World proved worth the wait.

 

The story takes place one year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup is the king of Berk, Toothless is the alpha dragon, and together with their merry band of dragon-riding misfits, they are freeing dragons from all sorts of ne’er-do-wells and bringing them home to live safely and peacefully in Berk.

 

Enter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), the ultimate dragon hunter, singlehandedly responsible for the killing of all the Night Furies. All but one, that is—which is something Grimmel intends to rectify. He threatens to destroy everything that Hiccup loves unless Hiccup turns over Toothless, and with his own set of powerful (and powerfully drugged) dragons, he has the means to do it. Hiccup sets off to find the mythical Hidden World, a place where dragons and dragon-loving humans will be forever protected from evil men.

 

Meanwhile, Toothless has found himself a girlfriend . . .  and it’s adorable.

 

After seeing The Hidden World three times in the theater (you can read about that adventure here), I knew one thing for certain: The Ultra HD version would be a sight to behold. And indeed it is. The film’s animation is simply gorgeous, with

exceptional detail, a rich color palette, and a lot of complex interplay between light and shadow. If you’ve got an HDR-capable display, you should absolutely watch this film through a provider that supports HDR playback. I went with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, which offers HDR10 video. The scenes in the hidden world are perfect demo material, both for their HDR and their color. But really the entire movie is stunning, and there are also a number of scenes that will challenge your display’s ability to render deep, dark blacks and fine shadow details.

 

The disc includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that makes good use of the complete channel palette. It’s a well-

balanced presentation with clear dialogue and a lot of music and ambient sounds in the surround channels. It’s not really an Atmos showpiece, however. The film contains several battle sequences that could make aggressive use of the height channels, and a few such moments will catch your ears, but for the most part it’s a fairly conservative mix.

 

The UHD Blu-ray package also includes the Blu-ray disc and a digital copy, plus bonus features like deleted scenes, an alternate opening, some fun featurettes, and a full-length commentary track by writer/director Dean DuBlois, producer Bradford Lewis, and Head of Character Animation Simon Otto.

 

The Hidden World is a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy that will delight children and reduce grown men to tears. (No, really—I saw this myself in theaters.) If your family loves How to Train Your Dragon as much as mine does, this installment will be spending a lot of time on your TV screen, so it’s worth it to pay more to get the top-shelf UHD presentation.

 

—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.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

Like millions of others around the world, my family and I have been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the years as it gradually built to the global phenomenon of a climax that was Avengers: Endgame. But my favorite film in the franchise remains Avengers: Infinity War, and if you’ll recall from the end-credits scene, just as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is about to disappear into a Thanos-snapped dust cloud, he pulls out an ancient-looking pager and manages to send off one final message. As the pager falls from his fingers and starts sending the message, its screen changes to reveal a logo familiar only to hardcore Marvel fans.

 

That brief end-scene introduced us to one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). (And those who have seen Endgame—which, seriously, by now should be all of you—will attest to her abilities.) It also perfectly set up Captain Marvel as the 21st and final Marvel film that would precede Endgame. I’ll admit, I didn’t recognize the logo on the pager, nor did I know who Captain Marvel was or anything about her story, so I went into the film fresh, and curious about what bits of the MCU puzzle this might fill in.

 

While Marvel films are usually met with excitement and anticipation, there was actually a lot of hate surrounding Marvel’s release—so much so that Rotten Tomatoes adjusted its rating policy when it was clear trolls were posting negative reviews and hatred over Larson’s casting and acting before the film was even released. Further adding to the controversy, Captain 

Marvel was originally a male character in the comics (although, different characters have taken up the Marvel mantle, and there is precedence for the character to be a woman), and many felt that casting Larson was a way to push a social agenda.

 

All of which didn’t interest me or sway my opinion in the least.

 

Give me a good movie I can sit and enjoy for two hours, and I don’t care if the lead is a man, woman, animal, or robot. I’ve got two daughters and I’m all for female empowerment. (And for the record, my 12-year-old loved it, saying “Captain Marvel was so cool and tough!”) And, if you avoided Captain Marvel for fear it would try to cram some social agenda down your throat, I’d strongly suggest you reconsider.

 

The first thing you’ll notice about Captain Marvel is a change to the opening credits scene. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say the folks at Marvel once again know how to give you the feels.

 

It seems like the Marvel team knew Captain Marvel would be a new character to many, and they chose a storytelling style that played into this, as we discover things about Larson’s character’s past along with her. The story opens with Vers (Larson) as an elite member of the Kree Starforce Military living on Planet Hala. Vers suffers from amnesia and just has snatches of visions and images of a previous life, but none of which she can assemble into a cohesive whole.

 

During a mission to rescue a deep-cover operative from a band of alien shapeshifters known as Skrulls, Vers is 

captured and her memories are probed by the Skrulls as they try to determine the location of some experimental tech Vers was involved with in her previous life on earth as Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers.

 

These memories lead both the Skrulls and Vers to Planet C-53—aka Earth—where we encounter a digitally de-aged and fresh-on-the-job S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with two working eyes by the name of Fury. (“Not Nicholas. Not Joseph. Just Fury.”) From here, the film moves forward with a steady stream of action, with Danvers gradually regaining memories of her life on earth as they piece together clues to hunt the experimental tech developed by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and avoid Skrull shapeshifters hot on their trail.

 

Taking place in 1995, the movie features a soundtrack that includes lots of era-appropriate tunes including “Waterfalls,” “Come as You Are,” “Just a Girl,” “Man on the Moon,” and more. Sometimes the songs are subtle and in the background; other times they take center stage à la Guardians of the Galaxy and Star-Lord’s Awesome Mix Tapes. There are also some other nice ‘90s-era references to bygone culture like Blockbuster and Radio Shack.

 

Visually, Marvel is a treat. Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR presentation has gobs of detail in every scene. Closeups abound with texture, letting you see the pebbling and grain in Fury’s shoulder holster, or an alien’s skin, or the metallic surfaces of the various spaceships. There is a scene about 10 minutes into the movie where Vers and a band of Starforce soldiers visit a planet that is covered in a smoky, hazy mist. This is a total video torture for noise and banding, especially as the smoke is 

illuminated in a variety of ways from lights, fire, and streaking laser bolts, but the image is always stable, clean, and noise-free.

 

The movie greatly benefits from HDR, with lots of brightly lit screen displays and readouts throughout that really pop. There are also lots of scenes in dark interiors that benefit from the wider dynamic range, letting you appreciate the detail of the set design. Near the end, when Marvel embraces her full powers, she literally glows with energy and power, and the effect works especially well in HDR.

 

Sonically, while many recent Disney releases have stumbled, I think Captain Marvel’s Dolby Atmos mix does a lot to correct this. The sound mixers seem to have eased off on the heavy-handed compression and uneven bass mixes that have plagued other releases (see my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron), and this movie has some very scene-appropriate low end that will take your subwoofers to church and flutter your pant legs. Explosions have dynamic depth and punch, and space engines thrum with authoritative bottom end.

 

The audio mix is definitely active and immersive but not overly aggressive. The height speakers are used to good effect to expand the sonic ambience and sense of space, and come into play during the big action scenes. One especially nice 

Captain Marvel

and clever use of the height speakers is during the scene where they’re picking through Danver’s memories, with off-camera voices moving about overhead.

 

While not required viewing prior to seeing Endgame, Captain Marvel does a nice job of filling in some little holes and fleshing out the MCU, and would technically be the first film in the timeline (if you start counting from when Captain America comes out of his ice coma). Its end-credits scene also does a nice job of marrying right into Endgame and explaining why Captain Marvel was absent from the big battle in Wakanda.

 

Available now for early download at the Kaleidescape store, Captain Marvel will be available on 4K HDR Blu-ray June 11.

 

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.

Apollo 11

What was originally intended as a review has turned into a rant, and for that I apologize. But this needs to be griped about. When Todd Douglas Miller’s new “found footage” documentary Apollo 11 was announced for home video release, I scratched my head over the complete lack of a 4K home version. No 4K disc release. No 4K for Vudu or Amazon or iTunes. No 4K on Kaleidescape, even. The film was, after all, showing up in IMAX theaters. Why limit it to 1080p at home? I shrugged my shoulders, wrote it off as perhaps being due to the low quality of the original source elements, and went about my day.

Then I saw the trailer. In 4K. On YouTube, of all places. And with that, it took me all of thirty seconds to go through the first four stages of the Kübler-Ross model.

 

Denial: I cannot be seeing what I’m seeing.

 

Anger: Seriously? The film looks this gorgeous and we’re only getting an HD home video release?

 

Bargaining: Maybe if I send an angry email to the studio . . .

 

Depression: This sucks. People are going to skip this release because it’s not 4K, which means the studio is going to feel justified in its decision not to release it that way.

To understand why this is a big deal, we need to back up and talk for a minute about the realities of 4K. Most of the movies you buy in Ultra High Definition don’t actually include nearly enough resolution to justify it. Take Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for example—my nomination for the most visually spectacular film of 2018. It was rendered in 2K resolution (2048×1080). Just a weensy bit higher-res than high-definition, and a long way from the 4,096 x 2,160 pixels that constitute cinema 4K or the 3,840 x 2,160 resolution technically known as UHD. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy Into the Spider-Verse in UHD? Of course not. The high dynamic range transfer is where the real magic of that film happens.

 

The thing is, this is true of most big Hollywood releases—especially those with any appreciable amount of digital effects wizardry. It’s the HDR that makes them worth buying in 4K. Not the pixel count.

 

But Apollo 11?

 

Sigh.

Apollo 11 is one of the handful of cinematic releases this year to actually exist in the form of a true 4K digital intermediate. The bulk of the film—at least the first and third acts—is sourced largely from 65mm military-grade archival footage, which was scanned at an incredible 16K (15360×8640) resolution.

 

Yes, it’s true that the middle passage of the film—the actual journey to the moon and back—is sourced largely from 16mm and 35mm sources, with some high-resolution photography thrown into the mix. But the opening 25 minutes or so, as well as the last 15 minutes or thereabouts, boast some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve ever seen from the Apollo program, period. And watching in HD (as I did on Vudu), you can tell at times that some detail is being lost in the down-rezzing. The flag on the side of the Saturn V, for example. The faces of the anxious crowds awaiting the launch.

The biggest crime of this HD video release, though, is that one of the film’s most spectacular moments—the launch of the Saturn V—positively cries out to be seen in high dynamic range. You can tell that the burst of billowing fire flowing out of those massive rocket engines is being held back by the limited gamut of the HD video format.

 

Should you skip buying (or at least renting) the film as a result? Absolutely not, especially if you have the slightest interest in the space program. This is one of those rare documentaries that does no egregious editorializing, makes no attempt at historical perspective, adds no commentary except for the news broadcasts of the day or recordings from FIDO and CAPCOM, et al. In tone and content, Apollo 11 has far more in common with those amazing Spacecraft Films DVD archives released a decade and a half ago than something like Al Reinert’s moving documentary For All Mankind

 

In terms of its imagery, though? I’m a veritable Apollo junkie, and I’ve never seen anything like this film. It’s as much eye candy as it is informative documentary, and the fact that it’s Number One asset is being crippled for home video is a crime.

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.

Ep. 8: Who Needs 8K?

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger open Episode 8 with an apology for the long gap between episodes, caused by a technical glitch.

 

At 4:39, Cineluxe contributor Adrienne Maxwell and Wirecutter senior staff writer Chris Heinonen—arguably the two biggest experts on video displays in the industry—join Dennis & Mike to discuss the emergence of and potential for 8K video.

 

At  26:37, Chris and Dennis discuss Chris’s online 4K viewing-distance calculator, and at 30:32, everybody talks about the movies, series, and books they’ve checked out recently.

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

RELATED EPISODE

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don’t Blame Netflix

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

We all take for granted that buying a better video display will result in a better home cinema experience. Ditto speakers and sound processors and amps and control systems and so on. But for some reason, even in an era where streaming has pretty much taken over as the dominant source of AV entertainment, we talk about services like Netflix as if the hardware delivering them doesn’t really matter.

 

This realization has been at the forefront of my mind recently, as I’ve had discussions with videophiles on Facebook and in the comments section of Home Theater Review about the quality of the streamed video experience. Even folks with roughly the same internet speeds as me, similar quality home networks, and comparable displays seem to be watching a wholly different Netflix than the one I enjoy.

 

This absolutely baffled me for the longest time. My first inclination was to write it off as pure bias. Or maybe even ignorance. But then I started asking about a variable we videophiles rarely discuss when we talk about streaming: “How, exactly, are you accessing Netflix?” (By the way, I’m using “Netflix” a bit like “Kleenex” here, as a synecdoche for high-performance streaming

video across the board. You could just as easily plug in your high-quality streaming service of choice, be it Vudu or Amazon or what have you. But none of this necessarily applies to lower-quality streaming apps like CBS All Access, etc.)

 

What I found is that almost none of the commenters who bemoan the quality of Netflix watch it the same way I do, via Roku Ultra. Some use cable or satellite boxes. Some rely on the smart apps built into their TVs. Some even have their laptops plugged into their TVs via HDMI.

 

This makes a difference. Way more than you would think. Way more than I would have ever imagined until I actually sat down for some exhaustive comparisons between the exact same Netflix programming streamed to the exact same display.

 

The first thing I discovered is just how substantially different loading times are between devices. I did all of this testing on my 75-inch UHD TV, installed just above my credenza, which houses my Roku Ultra, Dish Network satellite receiver, Kaleidescape Strato, and my other AV components. All are plugged into the same enterprise-grade, gigabit Cisco network switch, and as such have access to the exact same level of connectivity. If you’re a numbers nerd, you can check the “Netflix by the Numbers” sidebar below for a breakdown of exactly how long it took each device to load the Netflix app (after a hardware reboot), begin playing a title, and reach full UHD resolution and full bandwidth.

None of the above is even slightly shocking. What was shocking, though, is just how different Netflix looked via these different devices. Cueing up my recent favorite, Our Planet, I couldn’t help but notice that via the app built into my smart TV, this gorgeous nature doc looked a bit less gorgeous. A bit smeared. A bit noisy. A good bit less refined. A closer inspection of the screen revealed the cause: Numerous video compression artifacts, pretty much right in line with what all of the streaming detractors have been hollering at me about on Facebook.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

Switching inputs to the Roku Ultra—again, via the same network connection—I was a little staggered to discover a complete lack of compression artifacts. Ignore, by the way, the subtle swirling bands of brightness fluctuation in the image below. Those are a result of moiré, a misalignment of pixels between my TV and the digital sensor in my cell phone.

 

Ignore too the slight softness in the upper row of leopard spots. This frame is from about half a second later than the one above, and as such the cheetah is moving a little faster, so there’s some motion blur. Also, don’t focus on differences in color—my smart TV’s integrated Netflix app is delivering the program in Dolby Vision, whereas my Roku Ultra only supports HDR10, but the camera in my smart phone can’t capture the gamut of either format. This image was also taken a few inches away from the TV, so what you’re seeing is a tiny fraction of the screen, blown up way larger than life-size.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

But I think what’s clear here is that via the Roku Ultra, Our Planet’s image is virtually artifact-free. (As I mentioned in my review of the program, the only compression artifact I could find in the series’ entire run, at least from any reasonable seating distance, was about a second-and-a-half of very minor, almost imperceptible color banding in one early episode.)

 

I sent a series of images to colleague Andrew Robinson, since he and I have been discussing the geeky particulars of compression a lot recently. He immediately started poking holes in my methodology, at my request.

 

“Are you using the same picture profiles?”

 

Yup.

 

“Are you letting the smart TV buffer up to full resolution?”

 

Uh huh.

 

“Is your Roku running through the video processing of your AV preamp?”

 

Nope. I bypassed my preamp and ran the Roku straight into HDMI 1 on my TV.

 

I’ve done my darnedest to think of any reason why the same UHD/HDR program would look so rough via one streaming device and so flawless via another connected to the exact same network switch in the same room, running the same

streaming service from the same account. The only thing I can come up with is something Andrew touched on in his most recent piece about compression: HEVC (aka H.265), the video codec Netflix uses to deliver UHD/HDR, is very processor intensive. The cost of shoving such high-quality video through such a small pipe is that it makes the device on the playback end do a lot of heavy number crunching. And if those numbers can’t be crunched quickly enough, the results look a lot like the top screen shot above.

 

My guess here is that my Roku Ultra has the horsepower to deliver Netflix practically flawlessly, whereas my smart TV simply doesn’t. (And as gorgeous as the TV is with native 4K video, its middling performance in upscaling lower-resolution video to 4K is further evidence of this. That’s why I use my AV preamp to upscale video.)

 

And look, none of this is intended to be an advertisement for Roku. It may be my streaming player of choice because it consistently delivers the best performance for the streaming apps I use most. But I haven’t tested every single media streamer on the market to compare their video quality. (As our own John Sciacca has reported, though, even the highly lauded Apple TV 4K sometimes struggles on the audio front, and Andrew reported anecdotally in our most recent conversation that he noticed a significant improvement in video quality when he switched to Roku.) Nor do I have a representative sample of smart TVs to confirm that all of their built-in Netflix apps render such poor video performance.

NETFLIX BY THE NUMBERS

A nuts & bolts comparison of different streaming devices

 

I started with a simple load-time test, to see how long it would take for Netflix to launch to the user-select screen via devices that had just been powered up. All of these numbers are, of course, influenced by the speed of my internet connection (500 mbps) and the quality of my home network.

 

Roku Ultra  3.05 seconds on average from the time I selected the Netflix app until it loaded to the user-select screen

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  4.41 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  22.38 seconds on average

 

I then selected three different Netflix programs (Our Planet, Love, Death + Robots, and Test Patterns) and ran numerous tests to find the average time it took each device to start playing the program after it was selected.

 

Roku Ultra  3.20 seconds on average, from the time I pressed Select until the program started playing

 

Dish Network Hopper  9.64 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  13.15 seconds on average

 

Lastly, I cued up the Test Patterns again, specifically the pattern labeled “YCBrCr 10-bit Linearity Chart: 3840×2160, 23.976fps.” This test gives you a bitrate meter at the top of the screen, and also displays playback resolution, which let me gauge how long it would take each device to reach full bandwidth (16 mbps) and full resolution/color bit-depth.

 

Roku Ultra  Played at UHD 10-bit immediately, although it did start at 12 megabits per second and took 4.15 seconds on average to report full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  Switched from 1920 x 1080 resolution to full 3840 x 2160 resolution after 15.62 seconds on average, and took an average of 46.26 seconds to reach full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Smart TV Took 47.18 seconds on average to switch from HD to UHD resolution, and didn’t reach full 16 mbps bandwidth until an average of 142.54 seconds into the stream

All I can say for certain is that the device you use to access Netflix and all of the other streaming services you subscribe to does matter. And it matters way more than I would have predicted just a week ago. Simply put, if you’re streaming Netflix in your luxury entertainment system and notice that the picture isn’t up to snuff, don’t blame Netflix. Start pointing your finger at the device you’re using to access the app.

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.

The Lower Cost of Luxury

The Lower Cost of Luxury

Ed Gilmore in front of the Planar video wall in his midtown Manhattan showroom

Of all the radical changes happening in home entertainment, maybe nothing is having a bigger impact
than the unprecedented drop in the cost of reference-quality gear. We’ve already established on Cineluxe
that the once unassailable gold standard of the movie theater no longer pertains. The best possible
entertainment experiences are now happening at home. And not only has the quality of gear improved by
leaps, the cost of entry for a complete luxury system has tumbled just as dramatically.

 

But it’s not clear if most people understand how much has changed, and how fast. Today bears little
resemblance to five years ago, and the next three to five years are poised to bring vast changes in home
entertainment that will make today’s innovations seem hopelessly quaint.

 

Wanting to get a perspective on all this from somebody who spends every working day on the luxury
frontlines, I recently sat down with Ed Gilmore, founder and owner of Gilmore’s Sound Advice in midtown
Manhattan. Ed’s high-end clientele is, knowingly or not, at the very epicenter of the entertainment
revolution, and his vast experience in the installation world gives him unique insight into the changing
cost of luxury.

—Michael Gaughn

 

 

Michael Gaughn  What would a typical luxury system have come in at five years ago, and why?

 

Ed Gilmore  Five years ago, we were putting in Runco projectors that were in the vicinity of $40,000, and as much as $100,000. Even today, you’d pay close to $50,000 for a three-chip 1080p projector with a decent anamorphic lens. But you can get a great 4K laser projector for about $30,000, which is definitely a big drop.

 

For people who want to put together a home theater for, say, $30,000 all in, they have a wide variety of choices from projection companies. And they’re not horrible projectors by any stretch of the imagination. SonyEpson, and Wolf Cinema

have laser projectors that are less than $10,000. You can even get a decent projector for $7,000. That’s a huge change.

 

MG  How big will you go with a flat-screen TV?

 

EG  I won’t go bigger than 85 inches. I won’t do 100, because the delta becomes just too big.

 

MG  Do you consider that a media room at that size?

 

EG  Yeah. That’s not a home theater. I don’t think anything with a flat screen is a theater, sorry. Some people want to put a 100-inch TV in there. But if I’m going to put an LED or OLED that big in a room, you’re going to spend at least $60,000, so why wouldn’t you do a projection system?

 

Plus, you have a huge piece of glass sitting in your room. And there’s no way to locate the speakers properly behind that. It’s a compromise.

 

Besides, there have been big improvements in projection-screen technology over the past few years. Before, you had 

to be in a man cave—more like a bat cave, actually—but we’re now seeing decent results with ambient-light-rejection screens, decent enough where people can have a projection system in a room with windows, maybe with solar shades on them, maybe with lights dimmed.

 

Screens are less expensive, certainly, and projectors are plummeting in cost. As for receivers—you can buy a pretty darned well-equipped AV receiver for $1,700.

 

MG  Do you spec any disc players at all?

 

EG  Very rarely.

 

MG  That would be pocket change anyway, right?

 

EG  I think the only one out there that we’d consider a premier brand is the Pioneer Elite.

 

MG  But five years ago that would have still been standard equipment.

 

EG  Absolutely. Now you don’t need it. I mean, everybody is streaming one way or another.

The Lower Cost of Luxury

One of the home theater demo rooms at Sound Advice  (photo by Gusto Multimedia)

MG  It’s amazing how quickly discs died.

 

EG  Yeah. Streaming has really brought the whole world of entertainment to people at their fingertips, for better or worse.

 

MG  You’ve even got YouTube offering great-looking 4K—even 8K.

 

EG  Absolutely. We’re just seeing a huge change in terms of that kind of content availability. And it’s gotten cheaper and cheaper as well.

 

MG  So what’s the typical pricing for a luxury system today?

 

EG  A lot of components are no longer necessary, right? So, if you’re talking about a Kaleidescape and Apple TV, some type of a video and audio processing, then amplification and speakers, and of course, whatever choice you’re using for your video display, you can have a system for as little as $30,000, $35,000 now.

 

MG  That’s with control?

 

EG  Control, add another $1,500 to $2,000 max. If you then move up the ladder to say somewhere between $60,000 and $75,000, that’s a quantum leap actually. Then beyond that . . .

 

In our showroom we have Steinway Lyngdorf speakers, a Barco projector, and a Stewart screen with dual masking. So I have a room right now that’s about $175,000 all in, and it’s a phenomenal experience. I don’t think I could have possibly done that

five years ago. Back then, we were talking about a quarter of a million, easy. That’s a substantial drop in price.

 

MG  If somebody comes in and says, “I have Apple TV,” or, “I’ve got Sonos—or I’ve heard about Sonos,” what do you do to get them out of that paradigm where they think that’s somehow the ultimate?

 

EG  If you’re fortunate enough to be able to demonstrate the difference, that’s the easiest way to do it. With 

music streaming, it’s really difficult to get people who have only experienced Sonos off of it. It’s almost kind of its own cult. But if you can play Spotify or Pandora for them and then play Tidal MQA, they clearly hear that difference. And once they hear that, some of them—not all, but some will say—“Oh my God, I had no idea.”

 

And you can play exactly the same clip—whether it’s a concert or a movie—on an Apple TV and a Kaleidescape, and people will not only see the difference, they’ll hear it as well. And the people who are discerning will say, “Absolutely, let’s do this. Let’s do Kaleidescape. I get it.”

 

But in no way, shape, or form do you say it’s Kaleidescape or Apple TV. It’s always going to be, “I’m going to have Apple TV and Kaleidescape.” I use Apple TV when I want to watch something on Amazon Prime or Netflix or YouTube. But when I want to watch a movie, and it’s something I really want to see, I download it and watch it on Kaleidescape. There’s just no other experience.

MG  Is there still the perception that Kaleidescape is only appropriate for the most expensive installations and Apple TV is OK for everything else?

 

EG  Yes, because Kaleidescape used to be so high priced—$30,000-plus.

 

MG  The first unit was $35,000, wasn’t it?

 

EG  $35,000, yeah. That was a big ticket item for people. And it could go up 

Sound Advice’s work for this Central Park apartment features a completely
concealed home theater with a dropdown screen, a projector firing from
a porthole in the wall, 5 invisible speakers, and a subwoofer vented from
a closet 
 (photos by Gusto Multimedia)

from there. But now with the Strato at much lower price points, it’s really not a home theater until you have one. You can put a great projector and great surround sound system in. But if you’re not feeding it the best possible quality content, it’s like having a really wonderful car and giving it the lowest-grade gasoline. If a client’s already invested even $35,000 in a system, what’s another $7,000 for the 12-terabyte Strato S?

 

Let’s face it, five, six years ago we were putting $30,000-plus Kaleidescape systems in. Some systems were coming out to $50,000, $60,000 by the time all the storage was done. Now we can do the same thing for five or seven grand.

 

MG  How big is movie collecting a factor in all of this? Because when you rely on streaming, movies disappear all the time. You really don’t own a collection then.

 

EG  If you’re going to purchase a movie, and it’s going to cost you $28 or $30 to buy it in a 4K HDR format, then you’re making a commitment. It’s not a huge commitment, but you’re making a commitment to something you want to see time and time again. You’re also expecting that you’re going to see it in bit-for-bit resolution. I think that’s a wonderful trade-off. It’s affordable, and anybody who cares enough about that experience will say, “Yeah, this actually has value.”

 

If you look at the Kaleidescape experience from five years ago, we had clients who were buying discs and then ripping them into their system. And then there was that period with Blu-ray where you had to buy the carousel to do it. I think people lost interest in doing that. Plus it kind of defeated the whole purpose of having a server.

 

So, when you could start downloading Blu-ray, there was a little bit of a shift in terms of the value. Then the prices started coming down, and the Movie Store became accessible. I think there’s a lot of excitement about Kaleidescape now.

 

The biggest difference between now and five years ago with me and my clients is that you had to justify making a $30,000 investment. It was easier for people to say, “I’ll just buy a disc. I’ll have a bunch of discs.” Then there was Apple TV. So, “We’ll

rent a movie instead of buying it.” It’s much easier now for them to wrap their heads around the fact that they can start building a collection of their favorite movies, movies they want to see with their family and friends.

 

My clients aren’t necessarily making huge decisions about something that’s four digits anyway. I mean, they’re making $100,000 decisions, or $1 million decisions. They’re not making an under $10,000 decision. That’s just not part of their M.O.

 

MG  Can you think of anything else, when you’re spec’ing stuff in, that still carries a similar stigma?

 

EG  Control systems. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them. There never was. But a lot of people feel badly scarred by their experiences.

 

MG  It all hinged on the competence of whoever was doing the programming, right?

 

EG  Yeah. The client may have not had any real say, in terms of that engineering. Or they might’ve been ignored. Because let’s face it, when you’re creating a program pretty much from scratch, you’re going to put your own things in. You’re going to have it somewhat templated, and it may not jibe with what the client really wanted.

 

On top of that, you have a third-party control system. You’re trying to control components that have zero standardization, and that’s a recipe for frustration. People don’t like being frustrated. So that’s something where we have to push back all the time.

 

MG  What do you tell people is the current state of control, based on whatever their past experience was?

 

EG  Most of these systems are now app-based. So they already have those instruments in their hands. Whether it’s an iPad or an Android device they’re carrying around with them, that’s what they’re typically using to control the system. Remote controls still exist, especially for video

rooms. We think it’s a good idea. And in some cases, touch panels still exist.

 

But even the prices of these things have really plummeted. So you’re not talking about a $60,000 to $80,000 investment for a control system anymore. You’re talking $5,000, $6,000.

 

But even if a control system doesn’t cost a lot of money, the first time something doesn’t work, the client starts to question the wisdom of that investment. So if you’re talking about equipment that’s reliable, there’s this little thing called Kaleidescape that always works. It’s bulletproof.

 

MG  With Apple TV, Roku, or whatever, you don’t have system monitoring going on.

 

EG  Not at all. You’re in the dark with it. But Kaleidescape is really proactive when there’s an issue. They’ll let us know—we’ll know on our extranet, then get email notifications, telling us what condition that equipment is in.

 

Apple TV, you’ll get a client calling saying, “I have a spinning wheel here, and I don’t understand what’s going on.” You know how that usually translates, right? “I get the spinning wheel—I hate the whole system.”

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

Dead to Me

Dead to Me

In Netflix’s new original series Dead to Me, nothing is quite as it seems. Even the show itself isn’t exactly what you might glean from a casual viewing of the Netflix teaser. You think it’s going to be a show about a grieving wife who lost her husband in a violent accident and is trying to move forward with the help of a support group—and especially another grieving woman that she meets there.

 

Perhaps you tune in because you love the two female leads, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and you think it’ll be fun to watch a sharp-edged show about two middle-aged woman who suddenly find themselves single and must help each other navigate grief, dating, parenthood, etc.

 

You’ll realize before the end of Episode One that Dead to Me plans to tell a different—and much more interesting—story. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll be instantly hooked and burn through all 10 half-hour(ish) episodes in a weekend.

Dead to Me

One thing that does meet expectations is the performances, as both Applegate and Cardellini are a joy to watch. But the real credit goes to show creator Liz Feldman and the writing team for giving them such great stuff to worth with. This kind of story could easily slip into a stereotype: “One is hard and angry. The other is sweet and quirky. Don’t they make a wacky team?” But both characters are fleshed out with depth and believability. Yes, Applegate’s Jen has a hard time keeping her anger in check, but she’s written as a real woman, with a real vulnerability underneath that helps her remain the sympathetic heroine.

 

Dead to Me is presented in Dolby Vision or HDR10 with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. I streamed it through my Apple TV to an LG OLED TV, and the picture quality was excellent. The show is meant to have a very natural, everyday look, so there’s nothing particularly stylized about the cinematography. But the image is clean, colorful, and razor sharp, and the many Orange County, CA landscapes provide some nice eye candy. It’s beautifully lit, and the HDR just serves to reinforce that, be it through bright patches of sunlight streaming in through windows or the flicker of a firepit’s flames against the dark night sky.

 

Dolby Digital Plus is just fine for this type of dialogue-driven content. Your surround speakers and subwoofer won’t see much action here, although there is some effective LFE use in certain key scenes.

 

I must admit, I’m not sure if Dead to Me has the legs to run many seasons without the story devolving into absurdity. But I thoroughly enjoyed Season One, and I look forward to seeing what surprises Season Two will throw our way.

—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.

Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit

If the plot of Liam Neeson’s latest action/revenge thriller Cold Pursuit seems a bit too much like déjà vu, don’t be alarmed—you aren’t losing your mind. This is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film Kraftidioten, which was renamed In Order of Disappearance for its release here in the States.

 

I say this because my wife and I spent most of the movie with back-and-forth, “We’ve totally seen this right?”

 

“I mean, it feels like we’ve seen this already. Are you sure we didn’t see this?”

 

“Oh, yeah. I totally remember that part. We’ve definitely seen this.”

 

But, of course, we hadn’t seen this yet. We were just remembering Disappearance, which we’d rented from Netflix years back. That film starred Stellan Skarsgard in the lead role of Nils Dickman, replaced here by Neeson and renamed Nels Coxman—see, totally different.

 

Neeson, of course, is a man known for having a particular set of skills and a guy you definitely don’t want to piss off . .  especially when it comes to his family. But those skills in this case include being awarded Citizen of the Year for being the primary snowplow driver for the Colorado resort town of Kehoe, where he’s responsible for keeping the main route in and out of town cleared and passable.

 

(You might also recall this film from the uproar over some of Neeson’s racist comments during the promotional tour.)

 

I have nothing against remakes, especially when they offer some new, different, or updated take on something. The Magnificent Seven, both the 1960 original—which was a “remake” of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai—and the 2016 Antoine Fuqua version, which featured a ton of modern star power, is one example. The Clooney-Pitt redo of the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle Ocean’s 11 is another. These films both brought a different vision to the source material, especially considering that 40-plus years had passed.

 

But sometimes remakes can just seem gratuitous and solely for the sake of grabbing more money, and that’s how Cold Pursuit feels. Perhaps even more surprising is that the same director, Hans Petter Moland, made this version barely three years after the original. It’s clear Moland had nothing new to say, just a different set of actors to work with. While this isn’t a (near) shot-for-shot remake à la Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho dud, it lands awfully close to the original.

 

Now, that’s not to say that Pursuit is a bad film, or that it isn’t fun to watch, especially if you’re going into it fresh. The movie has plenty of action, and a dark comedy streak à la Fargo that will delight many and helps ease some of the more violent scenes. Neeson handles his role of Coxman convincingly—a father who can’t believe his son died of a heroin overdose and then accidentally discovers he was actually killed by a drug cartel. Coxman works (i.e., “beats and kills”) his way up from the bottom of the drug gang, seeking revenge until he ultimately reaches the man at the top.

 

The story has some nice twists, a decent amount of action, and a clear plot that is easy to follow. Sure, we have no idea where Coxman acquired his fighting skills, but, heck, it’s Liam Neeson doing what he seems to do best, and multiple similar roles have conditioned us over the years to just go along for the ride. (Also, unrelated, but a nice bit of trivia, Pursuit features

stars that bookend the current Star Wars franchise: Neeson from Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Laura Dern from Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, playing his wife.)

 

Filmed in ARRIRAW at 3.4K and taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate, I expected Pursuit to have a ton of detail and a razor-sharp image. And, well, I was a bit surprised to find it really didn’t. Images are clear and totally free of any noise, but they rarely revealed those ultra-sharp micro details the finest transfers do. There’s almost a softness to some of the long shots and background images, which looked more like a 2K upsample. Closeups don’t disappoint, showing a lot of detail and texture in fabrics and the weathering of Neeson’s face.

 

What does work especially well here is the HDR, as much of this film takes place in bright, snowy outdoor scenes. These pop off the screen, and a well-calibrated TV will reveal lots of detail in the snowbanks and mountains. There are also numerous nighttime or dark indoor scenes with deep, clean blacks, and pops of bright lights and color.

 

Don’t expect an over-the-top, reference Dolby Atmos soundtrack, as the height speakers are used pretty sparingly. But, there is some full, deep bass, particularly 

Cold Pursuit

in the opening, and the outdoor scenes feature some nice ambience to expand the atmosphere of your listening room, as well as some good directionality in the gun battles. Dialogue is also clear and intelligible.

 

If you’re going in fresh, there’s no question Cold Pursuit is the better-looking, better-sounding, higher-budget version of the two. But Disappearance was better received by critics, garnering 86% at Rotten Tomatoes versus Pursuit’s 69%. At only $19.99 in 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape store, it certainly qualifies as a candidate for a fun night at the movies. Or you can download Disappearance as well for only $13.99 and then compare them for yourself.

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.