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The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

A few years back, YouTuber Patrick H. Willems made a mock trailer for an imaginary X-Men film helmed by Wes Anderson. I’m honestly not sure if the video was intended to poke fun at Wes Anderson’s films or the whole concept of the X-Men, but I also kinda don’t care. I just want to see that movie. And in a weird way, I felt like I had come close to seeing it play out in reality as I watched the first episode of the new Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s much more to this stunning new series than that. After a bit, it starts to feel more like, “What if Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro teamed up to write and direct a mashup of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen?” Don’t worry if you have no idea what any of that means, by the way. All you really need to know is that The Umbrella Academy is a fun and introspective comic-book romp with lovably flawed 

characters, delicious action, and a wonderfully weird sense of humor. And as with all good pastiche, it manages to synthesize all of its comic book inspiration into something delightfully new and captivating.

 

The premise goes something like this: In 1989, forty-three women around the world mysteriously give birth despite having not been pregnant earlier that day. One mysterious billionaire tries to adopt them all, but only manages to assemble seven of them, six of whom he trains to become masked crimefighters. Fast-forward to today, and said billionaire has died, bringing this dysfunctional family back together to solve the mysterious circumstances of his passing.

What I love most about The Umbrella Academy is that it manages to do far more with its premise than you might expect (unless you’ve read the comics on which the series is based). Yes, part of the appeal here is watching super people do super things. But at its heart, the show manages to be both grander in its scope and far more personal. It tackles big questions, yes—questions about determinism vs. free will, about nature vs. nurture—but also grapples with issues like what happens when the repressed demons of our past start to break their restraints. (We’re talking metaphorical demons here. The show is weird and supernatural, but not that weird and supernatural.)

 

I also love the fact that showrunner Steve Blackman (Fargo, Legion, Altered Carbon) resists the urge to lean on heavy exposition. The world of The Umbrella Academy isn’t our own, but it always errs on the side of letting the viewer get

The Umbrella Academy

immersed in the world rather than dragging us through it with CliffsNotes. There’s absolutely no explanation for why there’s a talking chimpanzee butler, for example, because it’s the most normal thing in the world to the inhabitants of the series. You just have to roll with it. And other mysteries that unfold do so mostly organically.

 

Even if you don’t care about any of the above, The Umbrella Academy is worth a watch simply as a display torture test. Despite the fact that

the resolution is limited to 1080p (likely a result of all the special effects, which would have been tough to render in 4K on a TV show budget), the stunning Dolby Vision high dynamic range proves that contrast and color vibrancy are more important than pixel count when it comes to rendering a jaw-dropping image.

 

If I have one nit to pick with The Umbrella Academy’s AV presentation, it’s that the compressed audio just doesn’t quite do the show justice at times. That’s largely due to the fact that it boasts the best pop-music soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of this wonderful music would rock so much harder in full-bandwidth Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.

 

That’s only something you’ll really notice if you have a truly high-fidelity sound system, though. And it’s seriously no reason to skip this brilliantly dark, hilariously weird, and wonderfully acted superhero romp.

—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.

Mortal Engines

On paper, Mortal Engines seems like a can’t-miss film. It’s an adaptation of the well-received Young Adult novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, comes from a screenplay by the writing team behind the epic The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, including Peter Jackson, and included a trailer with striking visuals. But with mostly weak reviews, scoring a meager 26% on Rotten Tomatoes (audiences were slightly more kind with a 56% rating), and a paltry $16 million box office take in the US and Canada, this Engine was perhaps a little too Mortal.

 

But I’m not one to let a bad review dictate what I’ll watch, and my faith in Peter Jackson was enough to have me eager to give this a view at home. As is often the case recently, ME was released on digital download a full three weeks before the disc version, so I downloaded the film from the Kaleidescape store in 4K HDR.

 

There are, of course, three ways to approach a movie based on a popular book: Read it before, read it after, or don’t read it at all. With The Hunger Games trilogy, I devoured the books prior to watching the movies, and this built a lot of anticipation for the films, which didn’t disappoint, IMO. With Ready Player One, I was inspired to read the book after watching, and felt that while the two works were markedly different in many respects, they both worked for their medium. My wife started reading ME but the story didn’t grab her, so I went into the film knowing very little.

 

The 128-minute movie starts off with just a bit of exposition to explain how mankind arrived at its current state. Some untold number of years ago—enough for people in our time period to be referred to as “the ancients”—a 60-minute war involving a Quantum energy weapon known as MEDUSA effectively destroyed most of the world, bringing humanity to the edge of extinction. Out of the toxic remnants, a new age arose—the age of the great predator cities of the west. Of these cities, one of the largest is London, which roams around the Great Hunting Grounds of continental Europe practicing a philosophy known as “Municipal Darwinism,” where large cities on immense treads hunt down, ingest, and dismantle smaller cities for food, fuel, and any salvaged technology that can be repurposed.

 

Within the first 10 minutes you’re introduced to the main players which include Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is out to avenge her mother’s killer; Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan of recent The Umbrella Academy fame), a historian who gets (literally) kicked off the London and is forced to bond with Hester to survive; and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and the Hobbit and Rings trilogies), London’s power-hungry head science engineer who is searching for old-tech in order to secure a new power source for London’s future and oppose the anti-traction league, a group of static cities that sit protected behind a giant shield wall.

Mortal Engines

The film’s opening scene is action packed, as the enormous London chases, captures, and ingests a smaller city. The film has massive scope, scale, and world building, with convincing CGI that shows how something on the scale of London-on-tracks would function from a technical level, and makes it appear these giant tracked cities are actually driving around. I’m not sure to what extent the sets were of practical design versus created inside a computer with CGI, but the visuals are impressive, presenting these immense mobile locations that drive around carving out huge ruts in the land with their enormous tracks. Some of my favorite parts of the film were just admiring the inner-working and design of London.

 

The film was shot in Redcode RAW at 8K and the home release is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate and looks terrific.The film is a feast for the eyes, and items have terrific texture and detail. Whether it is the fabric in actors’ clothing, the various states of disrepair on walls and items around the very Steampunk-inspired London, or the multiple bits of machinery, ME offers tons of detail in every frame. There are several closeups where you can see the individual strands of hair on an actor’s head.

 

The film spends almost equal parts in dark and light environments, and HDR is used to good effect throughout to produce images that pop with detail. London at night, various searchlights piercing the darkness, and various lights and gauges inside cockpits all retain deep, rich black with appropriately bright highlights. The fires inside London’s engine room also particularly benefit from the HDR color grading.

 

Sonically, ME is the stuff home theater owners live for. The bass is big and weighty, carrying the proper amount of heft for something the size of London driving around and smashing into things. There are also a lot of textural sounds—engines thrumming, gears turning, cables moving—giving life to scenes. Sound effects have tons of directionality, putting the full soundstage to use to create an immersive experience. Dialogue also remains clear and intelligible throughout, even in the big action pieces, something some recent films have been missing.

 

My only complaint with the audio is that the Kaleidescape digital download didn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie with such a dynamic and textured soundtrack, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with NBC Universal, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films in 4K HDR. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

While not perfect, and a bit light on plot, I found Mortal Engines engaging and entertaining, and it definitely looks and sounds fantastic on a proper system. 

John Sciacca

Mortal Engines

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.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Are Home Theaters Pushing Movie Theaters to Improve?

For years, home theater technology has been chasing after the commercial cinema, trying to keep up with this supposed Holy Grail of the cinematic experience. And over the years, every development that has come to the home —large screen, surround sound, 3D, and Dolby Atmos to name a few—began its life in a commercial cinema.

 

But lately the tides seem to be turning. Due to a variety of factors including the drastic improvement of home technologies, systems becoming far more affordable, and the wealth of original content provided by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, more and more people are opting out of the commercial cinema experience and deciding to stay home.

 

One way in which commercial cinemas are trying to lure people back is through an experience called Premium Large Format (PLF). With massive screens, improved projection systems, and superior audio design, these PLF auditoriums offer a cinematic experience akin to what you could experience should you get an invitation to the screening room at Dolby Laboratories or The Stag at Lucasfilm. In short, the ultimate manner in which to experience a film in the way that matches the artists’ intent.

 

The PLF with the greatest name recognition by far is IMAX, which has been around for years and has over 1,300 systems installed around the world. Cinemagoers equate IMAX with a massive screen and impressive 11-channel digital surround system (but there are many online complaints that the brand has been diluted since the introduction of Digital IMAX—often derogatorily called LIE-MAX—in 2008, which uses significantly smaller screens and far lower resolution prints).

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Two other names in the PLF space include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX. (Barco had a short-lived venture in this category with its innovative Barco Escape technology, but it was shuttered in February of 2018.)

 

This past week, Sony announced it will be throwing its hat into the PLF space with Sony Digital Cinema, with the first screen set to open in Las Vegas this spring. Like Dolby Cinemas, the Sony Digital Cinemas will feature dual-laser 4K projection systems for an incredibly bright and contrasty image, as well as an immersive audio system, and luxury reclining seats.

 

One unique aspect of the Sony endeavor is that the company controls the cinematic process from end to end, from manufacturing the digital cameras used in filming, through the audio and video post-production at Sony Pictures Studios, to creating the cinematic 4K projectors. (While Sony did have its own version of theatrical surround sound—Sony Dynamic Digital Sound [SDDS]—this has long been discontinued, and the Sony cinemas will reportedly use Dolby Atmos immersive audio.)

 

One area where commercial cinemas have struggled to keep up with the home experience is through delivering high dynamic range (HDR) video. Whereas even relatively inexpensive direct-view 4K displays can produce a pretty dynamic HDR image, most commercial projectors fail to produce the deep blacks and bright whites needed to rival a direct-view home display. Couple that with the fact that many commercial cinemas run their projector lamps until they are on their last hours, making for a far dimmer experience that likely wouldn’t come anywhere near the minimum SMPTE (Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standard of 16 foot-lamberts.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

By using customized, dual-laser projectors (like those shown at left) à la Dolby Cinema, the Sony Digital Cinema should be able to deliver fantastic image quality on a massive screen, with HDR rivaling virtually any display. The Dolby Cinema system can deliver a staggering 31 foot-lamberts on screenalmost twice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standard—while producing 500 times the dynamic range of a typical cinema projector,

delivering the deepest black levels of any commercial projector, and producing an unbelievable 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. All that on a screen 68 feet wide!

 

Possibly of greater interest is the announcement from Bob Raposo, head of Sony’s theater business, that while these cinemas will launch with Sony’s laser projection system, the company has been developing a massive LED screen that could replace projection.

 

“Sony is going to once again revolutionize how people see movies, with our 4K laser projector and with our new technologies led by Crystal LED,” Raposo said. “Our goal is to deliver the ultimate brightness with mind-blowing contrast, allowing movies to be shown the way the movie-maker intended, without compromise and in the highest quality possible. Sony Crystal LED will create that new type of immersive experience for the marketplace, as Sony 4K did in digital cinema’s first phase. This is no doubt the future of cinema and our big opportunity to help exhibitors significantly differentiate themselves from the competition.”

 

Other benefits of these luxury PLF cinemas will include premium food and beverage offerings, stadium seating, and oversized reclining seating that can be reserved ahead of time.

 

The question remains, is it all enough? Will a premium experience be enough to lure you back to the cineplex, or are you content enjoying a luxury experience in the privacy of your own home?

—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.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 4

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 4
Theo's Corner

I am in the middle of struggling with the final phase of developing the Rayva home theater designs so they can be easily and affordably manufactured, shipped, and assembled. This phase requires a very strict engineering discipline to ensure that all the elements can be consistently reproduced.

 

I originally started designing the Rayva elements mostly in the way I used to do with custom-designed projects. I designed them, based not on a consistent formula, but on what I wanted the theater to look like. That is a legitimate approach when you’re designing one theater at a time because with enough time, money, and effort, it’s possible to design just about any theater. But if you have 20 theaters on order that need to be custom designed, there will always be unexpected bumps that can stall the process, even if you approach it with a rigid discipline.

I’ve been working non-stop for the past six months to break down in parts all the elements that make up the wall panels described in my last column (and shown below). We are now in the process of doing the same thing for our designers’ artwork that goes on the surface of these panels. The whole thing is like a cutaway view of a complex object. When you slice the thing you’re designing in the middle, you can see the various layers that make up what you normally see as a single object.

 

We are making the effort to figure out how to productize all the design elements so we can guarantee that they can be easily and repeatedly manufactured. We are turning what used to be treated as a custom-produced element into something that can be fabricated, inventoried, and then assembled as easily as an Ikea cabinet.  Each theater and each design consists of many parts that come in a box with an instruction diagram that shows how to put it together.

 

The challenge for me is, how do I dig deeper and deeper into the makeup of an object and turn it into something that looks like what I have in mind, while ensuring it can be engineered to be built as a part?

 

This has been a fascinating process. We brought on board Paul Stary, a brilliant engineer, who thinks about design differently than I do. I tend not to see the details; I see the big picture. And sometimes this can be a limitation. The 

bottom line is that I’m a designer, so I’m drawn into the look of a product. An engineer sees behind that look. But an engineer doesn’t always know what a designer has in mind. So the process of working together—an artist and an engineer—has been fascinating as we seek to find solutions that 

simplify what the product is without compromising its aesthetic principle.

 

I’m intrigued by this tug of war between engineering and aesthetic because I never had to do it before. In designing a custom theater, my team and I would draw up construction documents, give them to the contractor to build from, and we never had real control of construction methods. It is different when you work closely with an engineer. The collaboration creates the opportunity to constantly review the product from the aesthetic, manufacturing, installation, and functionality perspectives. More importantly, the collaboration creates a “recipe” that can be repeated again and again with a guaranteed result.

 

The whole time I’ve been involved in this process I’ve been asking myself, “Why is this so difficult?” It’s difficult because it requires two disciplines—design and engineering. I envy people who are capable of both. If you look back at what Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci did, they were the prime examples of an engineer 

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 4

One of our wall panels, shown on its mounting rails
and without its fabric covering.

and an artist together in the same person. That is what makes titans or geniuses like that gamechangers. So I just envy what they do, because I’m not an engineer and I need that support.

 

In my next column, I’ll interview my collaborator Paul Stary about the process of engineering the Rayva rooms.

 

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet, the followup to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, is one of those rare sequels that, if not better than the original, stands equal to it. Like many modern Disney (and Pixar) films, even though it’s animated, Breaks’s story and themes are designed to appeal across a wide range of ages, and offers plenty of laughs and emotion for everyone in the family.

 

Around six years have passed since the end of the first movie, and life remains mostly unchanged in the arcade for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who spend their days playing as characters in their video games, and their nights hanging out together, traveling to different games and throwing back root beer at Tapper’s.

 

When the steering wheel in Vanellope’s racing game, Sugar Rush, breaks, the machine is unplugged, leaving all of the characters “gameless” (i.e., homeless). Ralph and Vanellope turn to the Internet to find the part needed to repair the game, starting our heroes on their quest. But the film is really about friendship enduring as people grow and change. And the insecurity that one person feels when they are totally happy with the status quo and want nothing to change, and the other wonders what more the world has to offer and feels like they need to move on. Ultimately, your friends don’t need to be exactly like you to be your friends, and we need to let the ones we love be free to pursue their dreams, even if that means potentially losing them. Heady themes for a “kid’s” movie.

 

Ralph checked all the boxes for me; video games, nostalgia, technology, Disney, and Easter eggs aplenty, rivaling Ready Player One for things hidden in the background. (Google the license plate in the shark’s mouth for one great one!)

 

The film does a great job of visualizing how technology works—from the concept of packetizing data and sending it through a router and off to the Internet, how searches, viral videos, and pop-ups work—what causes the Internet to drop, and imagining what the Internet might look like if it were a physical place that data actually visited.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Without a doubt, the scenes at OhMyDisney.com were my favorite parts of Breaks, and quite possibly some of my favorite scenes from any movie in recent years. This area of the ‘net brings together virtually every Disney property—classic Disney, princesses, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, hidden Mickeys —into a lengthy segment featuring some fantastic Easter eggs throughout that had me smiling until my cheeks hurt. Instead of just being a cheap franchise tie-in, this scene brings multiple franchises together in a fantastically organic and entertaining manner. And kudos to Disney for getting all of the original actors back to reprise their voice roles here. Great stuff!

 

Similar to how the first film used different animation styles to differentiate between the worlds of Fix-It Felix (Ralph’s game), Sugar Rush (Vanellope’s game), and Hero’s Duty (Calhoun’s game), Breaks has different visual looks and styles

depending on where we are in Ralph’s world: the arcade, inside different games, the Internet, or the Dark Web.

 

One of the marquee locales is Slaughter Race, a gritty, smoggy, bathed-in eternal dusty-golden-light, crime-ridden world a la Grand Theft Audio. Here we meet ultra-racer/gang leader, Shank (Gal Gadot), who ends 

Ralph Breaks the Internet

up becoming an unlikely mentor and pivotal in Vanellope’s journey as well as contributing to a big-time song-and-dance number that’s an homage to classic Hollywood pieces of old.

 

Animation generally looks fantastic in 4K HDR, and Breaks definitely doesn’t disappoint. Colors are incredibly bright and punchy, almost neon when called for, especially in the Internet. Blacks are also deep, with a lot of detail.

 

Breaks sounds as good as it looks, with an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s used effectively throughout, both to create environment and to add impact to the onscreen action. The overhead, ceiling speakers are smartly used to create a wonderfully immersive experience, such as the echoing, swirling sounds when Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet or the multiple announcements that occur throughout. The carjacking scene in Slaughter Race also sounds great, with a lot of dimensionality and solid bass accompanying the crashes.

 

While mostly family friendly, there were a couple of scenes in the film’s final act —notably Ralphzilla and Double-Dan (you’ll know him when you see him) —that were a little too intense and frightening for my almost-3-yo.

 

Definitely continue watching through the end credits for one last great Ralph meme—probably the most perfect end credits scene a movie about breaking the Internet could possibly have.

 

The 4K HDR digital download is available from the Kaleidescape store now, a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, and contains numerous making-of docs, a handful of deleted scenes, and two music videos.

 

John Sciacca

Ralph Breaks the Interner

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.

Ep. 4: Luxury TVs 2019

After show hosts Michael Gaughn and Dennis Burger have the briefest possible discussion of the most boring Super Bowl ever, they’re joined art 4:14 by Cineluxe contributor John Sciacca and Wiirecutter AV editor and Cineluxe contributor Adrienne Maxwell to discuss the state of luxury TVs in 2019. At 21:54, the discussion shifts to the many things movie-streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have to do to make themselves more user-friendly. And the episode closes at 38:21 with everyone naming the things they feel are most neglected in mass culture.

The Cineluxe Hour logo

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—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.

Why HTA is the Real Deal

Why HTA is the Real Deal

During the lengthy period where my career as a custom installer (beginning in March of 1998) and my role as technology editor (starting around 2000) have overlapped, I’ve written numerous posts similar to Eric Thies’ recent, “How to Find the Perfect Integrator.”

 

Sadly, none of them seem to have made much of a difference.

 

I agree with everything Eric said, but principally that most people take almost no time to vet their technology integrator. The bar being so low to becoming an integrator—most states will let you place a magnet on the side of your truck and call yourself Joe’s AV without even requiring a license for low-voltage work—has led to a glut of terrible work, and dissatisfied customers.

 

Over the years, our company, Custom Theater and Audio, has resurrected numerous projects for people who let the most random people into their homes to handle the technology install. Even though they comprehend that it’s too complicated for them to do, for whatever reason they think that virtually anyone else is qualified to handle their technology needs. I’m not even kidding when I say that some people say they hired “some guy” that was walking through the neighborhood putting leaflets on doors, had the flooring guy do it, used the electrician, used someone the electrician knew, etc. The tragedy is that most of these people ended up spending good money to get a system that was never right for their needs, never worked right, and then had to pay us more to come in and fix or replace it.

 

This is exceptionally frustrating and, frankly, bad for the entire industry because all installation companies end up being lumped together in the minds of people who have been burned by a bad installation. And them passing on their bad experience to others tarnishes the good along with the bad.

 

That’s one of the reasons why the Home Technology Association (HTA) mentioned in Eric’s post intrigued me: Could this certification identify the best integration firms and help the cream rise to the top? This would not only help customers looking to hire a good company but (more selfishly) help my company stand out as one of the good guys.

 

HTA’s Director of Certification, Josh Christian, says the goal of certification is to do for the custom installation industry what the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has done for diamonds, allowing anyone to walk into virtually any reputable jewelry store and know that they’re purchasing a stone that has been independently verified for quality.

 

While HTA doesn’t guarantee that selecting a certified professional will result in terrific performance or outcome, in a sea of uncertainty, it certainly offers a beacon to help guide customers towards making a more informed selection from a pre-qualified group of top candidates.

 

My company recently went through the application process to became HTA Certified, and I can attest that it is a rigorous process, taking me several hours to research and gather all of the required information. Compared to the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association) application, which has you fill out a single-page form asking only the most basic information (company address, size, gross revenue) and credit card information, and essentially approves any company willing to pay the $500 annual registration, HTA mines far deeper into how a company actually operates.

 

Josh said the application process is so thorough for two reasons. First, it helps HTA identify the best-in-class installation companies and provide a real look into their business operations and the kinds of jobs they do. Second, the sheer length and breadth of it scares away exactly the kinds of companies they want to avoid. (As does the $400 application fee, which has the applying company putting some skin in the game.)

Why the HTA is the Real Deal

Once certified, companies are listed on HTA’s website. (Click here—or on the image above-—to see our company page.) A consumer looking to hire an installation firm can get a pretty good idea if a company is going to be a good fit for their needs.

 

How long have they been in business?
Longevity is generally a good indicator that the company will be around when you need service down the road. Also, “bad” companies usually don’t last. The average HTA certified company has been around for almost 17 years.

 

How many employees do they have?
Larger companies can often handle bigger projects and respond to service issues faster.

 

What areas do they service?
Working with a company that’s near your home often means quicker response times and no trip charges.

 

What kinds of projects do they focus on?
If you’re building a $15 million, 20,000 square-foot home, selecting a company that focuses on $500,000, 3,500 square-foot homes might not be a good fit.

 

What brands are they authorized to sell?
This will give you a look at the quality of gear the company can provide. This can also be important if you’re interested in a specific automation system like Control4, Crestron, or Savant, as dealers often specialize in one, but not all.

 

How many projects have they done over the past 3 years in different price categories?
A good snapshot of how busy the company is, and the focus of their projects.

 

What does a typical dedicated theater and media room install cost?
It’s a good idea to see if your budgets align with the company’s typical installs. HTA’s website also has a 20-question budgeting tool that can be very useful for getting a rough idea of what your project’s budget range should be.

 

What industry awards and certifications do they have?
Bad companies generally don’t win awards or attain industry certifications.

 

What are their service policies?
No matter how good your system is, at some point it will need to be serviced, and knowing the company’s after-sale policy upfront is a good way to avoid any frustration later on.

 

HTA understands that its certification will only mean something if it actually means something, not only to the industry but to people looking to hire an integration firm. They’re trying to do this by only letting in the best firms, and raising awareness with architects, builders, designers, and consumers that choosing a qualified—ideally certified—integration firm matters.

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.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 3

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 3
Theo's Corner

photo by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

In my previous column, I described how I discovered that the key to creating home theater designs that can be readily reproduced is to minimize the impact of the actual space—in other words, the room—on the design. This new approach, which is a radical departure from how I create my custom designs, allowed me to devise a system where wall panels wrapped in acoustical fabric and placed front of the room’s actual walls become a backdrop for artwork that hangs on them.

 

Treating the designs as akin to art displayed in a museum allowed me to focus not on how to fit a design into a room but on what the design elements should be, irrespective of any room. This freed me of the limitations of the actual space and allowed

me to focus instead on the thing that has the biggest impact on any room—the design elements. The design impact of a living room, for instance, isn’t primarily determined by the size of the space but by the choices of furniture, carpet, fixtures, and so on, and how they are placed within the room.

 

With this problem solved, I then decided, “I don’t want these designs to represent my aesthetic.” Now that I had devised a different approach to design, what if I invited others to create the actual designs, encouraging them to add new ingredients while staying within the confines of the new approach? By freeing these others of the burden of having to worry about the unique physical constraints of individual spaces, I could recruit collaborators so that home theater design would no longer be the solitary pursuit of just me and my imagination.

 

The decision to free home theaters from the restrictions of the room by devising a backdrop for a variety of designs was the first step. The second step was to devise those backdrops in such a way that they could not only serve as a blank canvas for design ideas but also address the other elements in a home theater that are usually dealt with separately, such as speakers and acoustics.

 

So we engineered the panels in such a way that they could not only incorporate and support various design elements but could also conceal the acoustic treatments and 

the speakers. Once I felt confident our concept for the panels could address all of these practical needs, I then approached various artists to create the room designs.

 

I originally said to myself, “Let me give a designer an empty room, and they can do what they want with it.” But the initial results were not what I expected. Designers are not trained to design with the technology needs in mind, so sometimes their design approach can have an impact on a home theater’s performance. So, by making the wall panels my responsibility, I relieved the designers of having to deal with an element that could limit their creativity. In other words, this approach allowed them to focus on having fun with creating their designs, which made the spaces fun for the clients.

Once I became a more active collaborator in the process, we were able to create some truly original works. We have since commissioned designs by well-known artists, including the sculptor Antonia Papatzanaki, architect Dimitris Theodorou, and photographer Marina Vernicos.

 

Each artist was able to use my backdrop as an opportunity to create artwork that reflects their individual aesthetic sensibilities. Having created the parameters within which someone’s design could be deployed on the wall panels, my primary responsibility was to ensure that the artwork wouldn’t in any way impede the room’s performance.

 

In my next column, I will discuss the extensive and innovative engineering that went into creating the amazingly flexible and adaptable wall panels.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

Does the home theater community ignore its greatest—arguably, only—asset . . . its customers? I ask this question because it’s one I don’t think anyone in the AV press, the manufacturers, and even enthusiasts are asking themselves. So allow me to put it more simply: Is this hobby ignoring itself?

 

Here’s why I ask: In numerous surveys conducted by many of the “mainstream AV publications” over the years, it would appear that the results are at odds with what the manufacturers claim people are clamoring for. For example, in a recent survey of dedicated home theater enthusiasts, the number who actually owned a multichannel home theater system (5.1) was less than what you’d expect from a readership “subscribed” to a publication with the words Home and Theater in its title. 

 

To test this, I recently did a survey myself, asking more than 1,000 home theater enthusiasts, whom would remain completely anonymous, to tell me what type of home theater setup they had. An overwhelming majority—a near 70%—said their home theater was but a 2.0 or 2.1 setup with respect to the number of speakers, with the display of choice being a single flat-panel TV and no more than two digital sources. The delta between 2.0 home theater and 5.1—which came in second place, by the way—was four to one. Of those who participated, less than four percent had a 7.1 or greater surround sound system. Dolby Atmos, get out of town—no one has Atmos.

 

Now, this may seem like an opportunity for manufacturers and sales people to begin selling more surround sound setups and whatnot, but many of the participants in this survey offered (unsolicited) further comment as to the reasons why they had but a stereo-based home theater. Many had downsized from dedicated rooms and/or “bigger” setups, opting instead for simple, stereo after having fallen down the home theater rabbit hole.

 

Moreover, many of those who felt the need to comment felt they were able to invest more wisely in better components by paring down and thus getting far more for their money than when they tried to make their dollar stretch over a complicated multichannel setup. So if the data shows that fewer and fewer enthusiasts are actually opting for more speakers and more gear, why are we so consumed with trying to sell them more? Why not sell them what they’re asking for? What they need? How can this hobby and thus the industry expect to survive by ignoring the data before it?

 

It can’t.

 

It is my belief that the AV industry has largely operated under the Field of Dreams mentality, whereby if you build it they will come. Only problem is, it would seem that the game ended a long time ago, and only those who didn’t get the memo are still standing around in the cornfields wondering where everyone went.

 

Every January, the AV press collectively writes about how CES isn’t about them anymore, passed over (or perhaps passed-by) for smartphones, smart speakers, and the lot. But therein lies the rub. It’s not that consumers don’t want better sound, bigger pictures, and an overall better experience—they just don’t want it the same old way. So they’ve turned to other means and products to get their “fix.”

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

The AV industry as a whole, despite being part of the technology genre, has proven incredibly slow to act, react, and innovate. You’d never know that reading their press releases or attending their press events whereby everything they announce is “game changing!” The truth is, it’s not—not by a long shot. Too often they keep knocking on the door of the same customers saying hey, remember us? Yeah, we remember you—we bought said widget from you last year, and it wasn’t much different from the widget we bought the year before that. Rather than take that feedback and truly innovate, many manufacturers have adopted a new tack: Find a new audience—an older audience—abroad. Worse still are the ones who stay and insist that the only thing people will buy in the US is cheap crap.

 

This really gets under my skin, because it’s not that enthusiasts are cheap; it’s that they’re tired of having to buy the same thing over again. What are consumers supposed to do when asked to buy the same TV, the same disc spinner, the same whatever each and every year? I can tell you what I would do—spend as little as possible.

 

Now, build me something truly forward thinking, a product that either combines previous technologies in a whole new way or introduces new ones that actually work, and then let’s talk. Imagine a display that replaces the need for separate components, powered speakers that connect to the display wirelessly, and a system that configures itself via input from your smartphone, and I bet you’ll be able to charge a little more than what Vizios are commanding at Costco.

 

But what do I know? I’m just one of those unicorns the AV industry is trying to reach so desperately. I’m under 40, educated, with disposable income, and a predisposition towards AV gear. How big is my system? Stereo.

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.