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I Don’t Watch Specs–I Watch Content

I Don't Watch Specs--I Watch Content

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Andrew Robinson

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

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

 

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Why I’m Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

Why I'm Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

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

 

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

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

 

The Sure Thing

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Better Off Dead

The Cannonball Run

The Cotton Club

Dogma

The Flamingo Kid

History of the World Part 1

Irreconcilable Differences

Jungle Fever

The Last American Virgin

Mask

Prizzi’s Honor

Pump Up the Volume

Rhinestone

Silkwood

Spirited Away

To Live and Die In LA

Wild at Heart

Willow

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Adrienne Maxwell

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

A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A Few Good Men

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

A Few Good Men

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo speakers

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

 

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

Andrew Robinson

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

A Guide to Luxury Speaker Systems

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

Once you’ve decided what type of luxury home entertainment system best suits your needs and decided whether you want to go with a TV or a projector and screen, you should next think about what kind of speaker system you’d like to have. In Part Three of Cineluxe Basics, we’ll guide you through some of the options, and some of the things you need to think about when picking out your sound system.

 

This is arguably a more important decision than what type of video display to go with, if only because you’ll probably be living with your new speaker system for way longer. Unlike TVs, projectors, and indeed even electronics—which often become

outdated after a few years due to the rise of new audio/video standards—a good speaker system can perform at its best for decades to come, with no updates needed.

 

That’s not to say that there have been no recent advancements in speaker technology, though. As mentioned in “What is a Luxury Entertainment System?” perhaps the biggest change is that hidden architectural speakers—those designed to be installed in your walls or ceiling and painted to match the environment—now boast levels of performance that were unheard of just a decade ago.

 

Take GoldenEar Technology’s Invisa Signature Point Source speakers, for example. These discrete in-walls deliver much the same performance as the company’s lauded in-room tower speakers, just without the big, black, monolithic design. GoldenEar also makes some very nice, practically invisible in-ceiling speakers, so you could build a nearly complete Atmos surround sound speaker system without ever seeing a single box in the room with you. Other companies known for producing high-performance architectural speakers include MartinLogan, Origin Acoustics, PSB, RBH, Triad, and Wisdom Audio.

 

I say “nearly complete” because in addition to five or seven ear-level speakers (depending on your preferences and the geometry of your room) and two, four, or six overhead speakers (if you want to do Atmos and DTS:X), you’ll also need a subwoofer or four. And while most of these bass-makers are big, unsightly boxes, you do have some options for hidden subs, as well.

 

James Loudspeaker makes a diverse line of hidden subs that come in all shapes and sizes, from in-wall options designed for installation in a standard stud bay to larger boxed subwoofers that can be mounted in the attic or in a cabinet, then vented out through a grille that looks like a 

traditional HVAC vent. Origin Acoustics also offers subwoofers similar to the latter, but with vents that open up into a port that looks virtually identical to can ceiling lights.

 

Chances are good that you’ll want to go with a hidden subwoofer of this sort even if you opt for in-room speakers. Which, by the way, doesn’t mean you’ve completely given up on your décor. These days, any number of luxury speaker manufacturers 

offer models that look right at home in even the chicest of interiors. Focal’s Kanta line, just to name one example, comes in a wide array of finishes running the gamut from Gauloise Blue to Warm Taupe. Simply put, these gorgeous cabinets are as much of a statement as they are a high-performance sound source.

 

If Italian design is more to your liking, check out Sonus Faber’s Homage Tradition collection, a deliciously retro lineup that borrows much of its handcrafted design from 

A Guide to Luxury Speaker Systems

Bang & Olufsen’s Beolab 18 speakers

the art of violin making. Or the company’s newer Sonetto Collection, which draws heavy inspiration from the shape of the lute for its distinctive styling.

 

Depending on your aesthetic taste, you may also find what you’re looking for in the style-focused designs of luxury manufacturers like Steinway Lyngdorf, Meridian, and Bang & Olufsen.

 

No matter how large the room or beautiful the speakers, though, few people would want to have an Atmos system made up of nothing but massive floorstanding models. One common solution is to have tower speakers flanking your TV or projection screen (sometimes accompanied by a matching, wall-mounted center channel speaker) and then employ high-performance architectural speakers for the surround channels.

 

These recommendations shouldn’t be viewed as the last word, by the way—merely a starting point in your exploration of what’s available at the moment in terms of ultimate-performance speakers that will either accentuate or recede into the background of your carefully crafted décor. The point is, you don’t have to sacrifice on style to put together a home cinema sound system that will positively embarrass your local cineplex. 

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.

Veronica Mars: Season 4

Veronica Mars

The Hulu-exclusive fourth season of Veronica Mars—which surprisingly dropped this past weekend ahead of its originally announced July 26 launch—is a wild and wonderfully complex thing. And I don’t just mean the sociopolitical murder mystery at the heart of its plot. This eight-episode run also has a sort of meta thing going on, in which it explores the tenuousness of its very existence, and what a dangerous motivator nostalgia can be.

 

If you’re not familiar with Veronica Mars at all, perhaps it’s worth stepping back for a minute to explain why the fourth season is such a big deal. The series started life in 2004 on UPN and ran for two years before moving to the CW for one final season. Best described as a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (minus the supernatural elements) meets Raymond Chandler (minus all

the cigarettes), the show launched Kristen Bell into the spotlight, and gained a cult following due to its smart writing, wonderful characters, and incredible performances. And then it was canceled, all too soon, because nobody could figure out how to market a series that looked like a modern high-school drama and acted like a gumshoe classic.

 

In the years since, word of mouth has elevated the series to must-watch status, so much so that a feature-film 

reboot in 2014 broke records on Kickstarter in the video category and held those records until Mystery Science Theater 3000 came along and smashed them. The funny thing about that is that both projects ended up being blatant fan service that failed to capture what made the originals so great.

 

Re-launches of beloved properties seem to be all the rage in the world of streaming these days, though (think: Gilmore Girls and Full House, of all things), so it’s no real shock to see Veronica Mars return, 12 years after its cancelation. What sets this season apart—from other reboots of other properties, and indeed from the 2014 Veronica Mars film—is that it actually has something to say. A reason to exist beyond mere nostalgia. Some self-awareness about what a double-edged sword one wields when giving fans of a dead-and-buried TV show what they think they want.

 

In short, Veronica Mars Season 4 is Veronica Mars and it isn’t. It’s many of the same characters we knew and loved from the show’s original run, except they’re not exactly the same people anymore. Since the Buffy vibe no longer quite works, given how far removed from high school Veronica is these days, this season also leans more heavily on its Raymond Chandler roots, and makes playful references to other noir and neo-noir offspring of Chandler, including some blink-and-miss-it nods to Columbo and—true to Veronica Mars form—a good mix of subtle and overt shout-outs to The Big Lebowski.

 

At its heart, though, what makes this new season work so well is exactly the same thing that made the original series such a joy to watch. Namely, the bond between Kristen Bell as Veronica and Enrico Colantoni as her father and partner-in-crime-solving, Keith Mars. The banter between them puts the best of Cary Grant and Ros Russell to shame, and although that

Veronica Mars

rapid-fire back-and-forth has evolved to accommodate a world in which smart phones, smart homes, and social media are a thing, that evolution feels organic, not forced or kitschy. As does everything else about how the dark world of sunny Neptune, CA, has changed since we last dropped in on it to revel in the whodunnit of it all.

 

Perhaps the most impactful difference between the old and new incarnations of Veronica Mars isn’t the time that has passed, though; it’s the new format. By limiting this season to eight episodes, showrunner Rob Thomas (no, not the “Matchbox Twenty” one; the Space Ghost Coast to Coast/Party Down/iZombie one) is able to craft a compact narrative without all of the mystery-of-the-week episodes that padded earlier seasons.

 

Since the show is also now likely to be binged instead of doled out a week at a time, the new writing team (which also interestingly includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) has also been given free rein to weave a much denser narrative that involves not just a spring-break bomber, but also a blackmailed congressman, two hitmen for a Mexican drug cartel, and a fame-seeking pizza-delivery guy/conspiracy theorist (played to perfection by Patton Oswalt), all of whom come together in one big mystery of misunderstandings, double-crossings, and red herrings.

 

All in all, Season 4 comes as close to the perfection of Season 1 as anyone could hope for. Only a few minor quibbles (a stray reference to a director’s cut of The Big Lebowski when nonesuch exists, and a minor continuity error involving a cellphone video that doesn’t perfectly match events as they played out in an earlier episode, for example) mar what is otherwise a masterfully crafted reboot that can honestly be enjoyed as its own thing, even if you never saw the first three seasons and might not understand a handful of references to characters who didn’t have an organic part to play in this new story.

 

That last fact, though, plays right into this season’s larger theme about how nostalgia can bite you in the ass. Some longtime fans may have preferred to see those characters shoehorned into the plot anyway. And others will no doubt rage at the show’s handling of one of the original cast members. (I haven’t had time to peruse the forums just yet, but I can predict the hissy fits without even having read them.)

 

As for me, you can count this long-time Marshmallow (as Veronica Mars fans are known) amongst those who loved every minute of this season. I want more of the same. ASAP. But appropriately enough, “more of the same” would be outright impossible. The end of Season 4 leaves Veronica Mars (the show and the character) in such a place that it and she are left with no choice but to evolve again.

 

Technically speaking, I only wish Hulu would likewise evolve. The look of Season 4 is at times held back by the 1080p limitations of the service the show now calls home. Blacks are a bit crushed in some darker scenes, and banding rears its ugly head from time to time. Granted, the show looks better now than it did in its original run, but its mix of bright and sunny beach shots and shadowy nighttime skulking would greatly benefit from the high dynamic range that 4K brings with it.

 

Hopefully, by the time Season 5 rolls around (fingers crossed), Hulu will have grown up and adapted to the modern era as deftly and meaningfully as Veronica Mars has.

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.

Shazam!

Shazam

I’ll forgive you if you’re suffering from a bit of superhero-film fatigue. The past few years has seen theaters inundated with a steady slate of supers, both solo and in teams. Between the 20-plus films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, X-Men, the various DC films, the anti-heroes Venom and Deadpool, and the myriad of spinoffs available for streaming on Netflix, barely a weekend seems to go by without some new hero flick appearing on the screen.

 

That’s one of the reasons why I took a pass on Shazam! during its theatrical release despite some decent buzz, a clear (and much needed) fresh approach by the DC team, and a shockingly high Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%, just slightly below the franchise-best 93% of Wonder Woman. But if you avoided Shazam! during its theatrical run, you might want to give it a second chance in your home theater as the film not only looks and sounds fantastic, it’s just fun to watch.

 

Starring 16-year-old Asher Angel (best known by ‘tween girls everywhere for his role of Jonah Beck on The Disney Channel’s Andi Mack) as Billy Batson, the boy who transforms into the adult Shazam!, and co-starring 15-year-old Jack Dylan Grazer (It) as his foster brother Freddy Freeman, the youth lifts the heaviness present in so many recent DC films and gives the filmmakers the opportunity to inject some lightheartedness and humor into the proceedings. Imagine that? A DC superhero who isn’t dark and heavy the entire time? Add Zachary Levi, who appears to be having a blast as Baton’s superhero alter ago, perfectly translating a teenager being thrust into a full-grown hero’s body. All of this produces a recipe for a film the entire family can enjoy. (Common Sense Media actually recommends it for ages 12+, as there are a couple of fairly intense PG-13 scenes that could definitely frighten younger viewers.)

 

At 2 hours 12 minutes, Shazam! isn’t short, but it uses its runtime efficiently to provide enough backstory to explain why Batson is so obsessed with finding his mother, how he’s chosen to become Shazam, how he discovers his superhero abilities, and why the film’s arch-villain is so bent on getting a second chance to be considered “worthy.”

 

I seem to recall reading some Shazam! comics growing up, but I remembered virtually nothing about the character or his abilities, so the story was new (i.e., interesting) to me. After bouncing around a variety of foster homes, Batson lands in a new house filled with other foster kids. After saving Freeman from bullies at school, he’s summoned to the Rock of Eternity by the ancient Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The last of the council of wizards, Wizard Shazam is dying and is looking for a new champion who is “pure of heart” to bestow his magical powers to before he goes. This champion will have to fight the one who stole the Eye of Sin, a device that inhabits its owner and that holds the Seven Deadly Sins that can be unleashed on the world.

 

With the powers transferred, Batson transforms into a near invincible hero whenever he shouts “Shazam!” But he is given no instructions about what these powers are or how best to use them, and the film uses this discovery process to much comedic effect, with the chemistry between Grazer and Levi making for a great buddy comedy.

 

Shot in ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, the Digital Intermediate format is only listed as “master format,” but the picture quality leads me to believe it’s 3.4K upsampled to 4K, rather than downconverted to 2K. Closeups reveal incredible detail, such as the texture in Shazam’s suit, the fabric of Batson’s hat and jacket, or individual strands of the Wizard’s hair. Virtually every shot bristles with detail, especially the brightly lit outdoor scenes. Images also have incredible sharpness and edge detail without seeming exaggerated.

 

Even more impressive than the resolution is the film’s extensive use of HDR and the format’s wider color gamut, which is deployed judiciously to enhance images that benefit from the added brightness. The Rock of Eternity has deep, black 

shadows, yet the orb atop the Wizard’s staff and The Eye of Sin glow brilliantly and intensely, offering far more illumination on the Kaleidescape download than on the Blu-ray version. The lightning bolts that appear every time Shazam transforms, and the bolts of electricity he blasts, are also far more intense. Even the ever-present glowing lightning bolt on Shazam’s chest (a practical design rather than a CGI effect) has more intensity and pop with the benefit of HDR. Nighttime scenes in Philadelphia—including the film’s climatic battle at an outdoor carnival—have so much more depth and dimension, making the non-HDR Blu-ray version appear flat in comparison.

 

Sonically, Shazam!’s Dolby Atmos soundtrack matches the quality of the video, and is absolutely first-rate, with tons of immersion and full use of all channels throughout. The sound designers really understood what a powerful tool Atmos adds to the storytelling, and they don’t miss an opportunity to expand the mix into channels around the room, surrounding you in the action.

 

Early in the film, we have our first visit to the Rock of Eternity, with the sound of ice crystals forming and crackling overhead, and then the echoes and reverberations transforming your listening space into the cave. When the Seven Deadly Sin statues speak, their voices boom with deep, gravelly notes that seem to emanate from every corner of the room. Bass is deep and impactful when it 

Shazam

should be, but dialogue always remains clear and intelligible. If you’ve been looking for a new film to show off your surround system, Shazam! doesn’t disappoint.

 

The Blu-ray-quality download included with the 4K HDR purchase at the Kaleidescape Store has a number of extra features and more than 30 deleted scenes, letting you take a deeper dive into Shazam’s universe.

 

If you’re looking for a family-friendly break from the dark trend favored by most superhero films lately, Shazam! might be exactly what your home theater has been wanting.

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.

A Brief Introduction to Tube Electronics

The history of tube audio components parallels that of vinyl records over the past 40 years, so in my mind it’s sort of appropriate that tubes and vinyl often go together among audiophiles.

 

By the early 1970s, tube gear was becoming obsolete, supplanted by smaller, more efficient wonder-of-the-Space Age transistors and solid-state audio components. But many audiophiles and music lovers found the sound of early solid-state harsh, spatially flat, even awful. Yet while tubes flickered out of mainstream consumer electronics, they enjoyed a high-end audio revival in the 1970s, still going strong. Today a wealth of tube gear exists, most of it in the high-end luxury realm.

With the advent of the digital Compact Disc in 1982, records were written off—literally, among the mainstream audio press—as a dying format. After all, CDs offered “Perfect Sound Forever.” But critical listeners rejected the sound of early digital, like that of solid-state gear, as harsh, flat and sometimes awful. Some CDs and CD players certainly were. Many audiophiles clung to the analog sound of vinyl, and still do.

 

Thanks to some very talented designers, engineers, and manufacturers, digital audio has improved dramatically. High-resolution audio formats and better D/A (digital to analog) converters are just two examples. In fact, a large contingent of audio professionals will tell you “Game over. Tube components and record players are hopelessly outmoded.”

 

Not so fast.

 

The fact—not wishful audiophile longing, but fact—is that vacuum-tube components have a major presence in high-

end audio, as do turntables, and it’s common knowledge that vinyl is enjoying a major renaissance. Many people who prefer tubes also like to listen to vinyl.

 

Why? Is it because tubes and vinyl really do sound better? Or is it nostalgia—the desire to transport, via one’s music system, back to a simpler, more fondly remembered time as heard through the aural equivalent of rose-colored glasses? Maybe it’s the fun factor of basking in the glow of those tubes (they look really cool in the dark!), watching the record spinning, and holding the record jacket in your hands as you admire the artwork and read the liner notes.

 

(An aside—I listen to everything from old mono LPs to hi-res streaming audio. I’ve heard superb digital and solid-state, and those formats have practical and engineering advantages. That said, there will always be a special place in my heart for tubes and vinyl.)

 

Good tube gear can sound incredibly good, with superb tonal richness, body, detail, and spaciousness. If you equate measurements with fidelity, some tube gear in fact measures very well. On the other hand, detractors will say that “tube warmth” is just an inaccurate coloration or harmonic distortion. (Some people like to run digital audio through tubes to “warm up” the sound, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

 

There are practical considerations. Tubes generate heat and use more electricity. Tube audio components tend to skew expensive—vacuum tubes cost a lot more than transistors and integrated circuits, they use other expensive parts, and building them is labor-intensive. Tube gear can weigh a lot.

 

Tube amps come in many varieties. There are under-10-watt single-ended-triode Class A designs like the Audio Nirvana 300B ($1,650) and behemoths like the VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock ($75,000/pair). Careful speaker 

matching will be necessary, especially with lower-powered amps. (There are also hybrid audio components that incorporate both tubes and solid-state, to combine the advantages of both.)

 

Tube electronics require commitment—the tubes eventually need to be changed, though they can last many years, and some tube amps need periodic user attention. Solid-state gear is set-and-forget by comparison. If you’re thinking of going tube, talk to your dealer, read reviews, and do your homework.

 

To bring turntables, which I discussed in my previous article, into the discussion: Although vinyl has its drawbacks (bass limitations, inner-groove distortion, etc.), a high-end record-playback system can sound wonderful. And there are those who insist analog does sound better than digital, especially through tubes. Complementary colorations or better fidelity? The debate rages.

 

Arguments—er, debates—on sound quality aside, there’s definitely a funky cool nostalgic vibe to tube components and turntables. They look retro and give you classic analog sound. Vintage pieces from Marantz, McIntosh, Quad, Western Electric, Garrard, Thorens and others are from a bygone era—and prized by many audiophiles. (And are also going up in value.)

 

A friend of mine wanted a tube/vinyl setup specifically to listen old-school style to

music as it sounded back in the day as he looks out onto a lakeside sunset and cues up an album on the stereo. You’re just not going to get that vibe scrolling through a computer playlist.

 

In that sense, tubes and turntables very much go together. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fun just to be around them. Playing an old record on a tube/vinyl system gives a strong connection with the past. It’s like listening through a time machine. (Try it. You’ll feel it.) Listening to contemporary albums also sounds great.

 

Writers give a lot of blah blah blah lip service to the experience—but really, that’s what listening to music is all about. It should be fun, involving, emotional. Tube audio gear, turntables, and records offer an intriguing path toward getting you there. Maybe it’s a path you’d like to take.

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.

Chasing the Moon

If you’re looking to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing from the comforts of your sofa, needless to say you’ve got a ton of options. From Ryan Gosling’s intense portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man to the just-the-facts-ma’am documentary approach of Apollo 11, on to the recently remastered HD re-release of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, the space race has been covered from just about every angle imaginable. And yet, despite the fact that I have an

entire shelfful of DVDs and Blu-ray discs dedicated to the Apollo program, I’ve never seen anything quite like PBS’ new documentary mini-series Chasing the Moon.

 

That’s largely due to the documentary’s placement within PBS’ larger pantheon of programming. The three episodes that comprise this new and different doc fall within the 31st season of American Experience, the network’s series about our nation’s history and the oft-controversial figures that propel that history.

 

As you might expect if you’ve ever tuned into American Experience, the emphasis here isn’t on the scientific or engineering marvels that took us to the moon, nor the trials and tribulations of the astronauts themselves. Instead, Chasing the Moon plants the space race firmly within the geopolitical climate of the era, giving the viewer a hefty helping of historical context.

 

The first episode, for example, starts with a spotlight on Apollo 11, and even includes some shots similar to those seen in the recent IMAX documentary of the same name, 

but then sort of backs up and says, hang on, to understand how we got here we need to back up to 1957 and the Soviet launch of Sputnik. And to understand that, we need to back up again to World War II, to unpack the complicated relationships between Germany, the US, and the USSR. This presents an opportunity to unveil some archival footage I’ve never seen, such as the Germans testing their V-2 rockets and the Soviets trumpeting their early successes over the Americans.

 

Shockingly (to me, at least), there’s also extensive voiceovers from Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Premier and a rocket engineer in his own right, who provides some modern perspective on the Russian side of the space race. Inclusions such as this, combined with the larger focus on politics—how they influenced the space race, and how the space race influenced them—make Chasing the Moon perhaps one of the most important documentaries on the Apollo program I’ve ever seen. Important in that it will give future generations insight into why all of this happened in the first place, not merely how.

Chasing the Moon

Granted, if you’re looking for a spectacular AV presentation, you might be a little disappointed. Since education is the primary impetus behind Chasing the Moon, no real effort has been made to clean up much of the grainy, scratchy archival footage and TV broadcasts that comprise the bulk of its visuals. Still, you’ve got a few avenues by which to view the series (which runs just 20 minutes shy of six hours over the course of three episodes), and quality of presentation may affect your decision about which road to take.

 

There is, of course, cable/satellite or antenna, as PBS will continue to rebroadcast all three episodes in the days surrounding the anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. There’s also the free PBS app, which is available on most streaming devices and requires no subscription, just a free login. The quality of presentation here is a step up from cable/satellite, but not quite up to the clarity of over-the-air broadcasts if you’ve got a decent antenna.

 

You can also purchase the show in 1080p HD with 5.1 sound from Amazon for $7.99 or Vudu for $9.99. There’s no real reason to opt for the latter unless you just hate Amazon Prime’s cluttered interface, as both are practically identical in terms of presentation. Or you could opt for the Blu-ray release for $25, which adds a few bonus features, including a making-of documentary and an interview with the director.

 

However you watch, though, I think Chasing the Moon deserves your attention, due to its distinctive take on this most historic event. Just don’t go in expecting the rah-rah flag-waving typical of Apollo documentaries. This is a warts-and-all exploration of the messy and often contentious reality of the space program from a societal and political perspective, and as such it touches on a lot of truths that more celebratory retrospectives often leave out.

 

In a weird way, though, that makes the big event all the more worthy of celebration.

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.