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Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

Anyone who tells you they truly enjoyed the first episode of Russian Doll is either a liar or a masochist. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeeming about the inaugural 24 minutes of this new Netflix original. It’s beautifully shot in a gritty, naturalistic style that makes subtle but effective use of its high dynamic range instead of leaning on it as a gimmick. It’s undeniably well written, despite the fact that its dialogue is too clever by half and a little pandering at first. And the performances—especially by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame—are nothing less than inspired from the giddy-up.

 

The problem, though—and what kept my finger hovering over the cancel button for the entire first episode—is that the series starts on such an utterly grimdark note that it’s equal parts fatiguing and boring. It’s shocking just for the sake of shock value—or so it seems. It’s offensive for no other reason than causing offense. There’s nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters, and I found myself distracted by the incongruity of the fact that Amy Poehler produced this seemingly joyless pit of sardonic despair.

 

It’s not my intention to be moralistic here. And it’s not as if I shy away from the dark. But darkness without light is just sort of monotonous, and there’s nary a stray luminous beam to be found within Russian Doll’s first—thankfully brief—episode.

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

What follows that grimy start is a series of seven episodic romps, each of which cranks up the levity—and indeed the weirdness—until it manages to find some equilibrium. Some carefully teetering balance between the inherent grimness of the show’s premise (in short: Lyonne is forced by the universe to die in increasingly ironic ways and live some semblance of the same day over and over again) and the wonderful absurdity of it all.

 

By the time Episode 8’s ending credits rolled, I was oddly sad to see Russian Doll come to an end. I’d fallen in love with its unlovable characters. I was completely on board with its flippant earnestness. I wanted more of the show’s delightfully wacky and inventively improbable twists and turns. The utterly unapologetic human beauty and levity of its final moments more than made up for the soulless dehumanization of its earliest scenes.

 

Still, though, when I reflect on this undeniably beautiful work of whimsical and meaningful art and consider whether or not to recommend it to friends, I can’t help but pause. If you managed to make it through that first episode and you’re wondering whether to soldier on, yes. Keep going. It’s so worth the ride in the end.

 

But if you noped out before you even figured out what the show is really about, I can’t much say that I blame you.

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.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 2

Theo's Corner

I have been spending the past two years trying to figure out how we designers can come up with a recipe for creating home theaters that puts us on more solid ground than the ground we are on when a client gives us an empty room and tells us, “Go ahead and design a theater.” The traditional solution has been to ponder the situation, produce some ideas, then implement them in a very custom way. In other words, we always start all over from scratch.

 

When I started developing the concept that would become Rayva, my guiding light was always, “How can I make this design process more predictable? How can I turn what has always been a unique project into a reproducible product?” The goal was to allow some flexibility for the variables that differ from project to project while creating a recipe that offers predictable solutions for 90 percent of what goes into any home theater.

 

Of course, I would love to have the freedom to do what I want with a room. But that freedom can become seriously constrained when you have to spend a lot of your time on a project reinventing things that could otherwise be standardized.

My goal was to create an approach to home theater design that allowed for traditional
elements like furniture, carpeting, and decoration but wasn’t dependent upon room size

So I took the concept of home theater and tried to “explode” it into its constituent parts. Some of those parts are obvious—such as the furniture, the carpeting, and the location of the speakers and the screen. My goal was to take those ingredients and find a way to make their implementation simple and safe, time and again—safer for the client, simpler for the designer—so they would yield more predictable results. But without sacrificing any of the diversity or fun of designing an exceptional home theater.

Part of the trick here was to determine not just the design but the technical choices that could be standardized. Nailing all of that down would create a solid foundation upon which I and others could let our creativity roam free—and in a fraction of the time it takes to create a completely custom design.

 

I began this exercise by contemplating, “At the most basic level. what makes a design custom?” And the answer is that you are always at the mercy of the room, which will always differ from any other room. The width, length, height, placement of door entries, and so on are almost always different. To solve that problem, I essentially had to make the problem part of the solution.

 

The answer, it occurred to me, was to a find a standardized design solution that wasn’t dependent on the room size. This was an important discovery, because not being beholden to the specific dimensions of a room makes it much easier to come up with a design. And it also creates a structure that others can use to create designs of their own.

 

Think of the room’s design as akin to a painting. If you have a painting you want to enjoy, you don’t care about the size of the room it’s going to go into. You find the most appropriate place to put it on the wall, and then the painting becomes the design element that determines the other elements in the room.

It is the same with furniture. A nice piece of furniture can fit into a room that’s 12 by 15 or 18 by 20 or 30 by 40. You just add more furniture—or bigger furniture—to fill the room.

 

This gives you a sense of the design approach I arrived at, where you have standardized elements that, once combined, can yield a result as exciting as if you were to create a custom design—but freed of the tyranny of the room’s size.

 

In my next post, I’ll describe the method I’ve created for having luxury home theaters fit it any rectangular room, beginning at 11.5 by 16 feet, and how that led to my collaboration with a number of brilliant artists and designers.

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.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I wondered if you could hear any differences in Dolby Atmos surround sound on the various movie streaming services and movies downloaded from Kaleidescape, and decided to do a comparison between Vudu, Apple TV, and Kaleidescape to find out.

 

After an afternoon of listening tests, here are my results.

 

I have a pretty high-end audio system, consisting of the new Marantz AV8805 flagship preamp/processor, two Marantz seven-channel amplifiers, and a 7.2.6-channel speaker configuration that includes Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L tower

speakers, a Definitive Trinity Signature Reference sub, and an SVS SB-16Ultra sub. I watched all of the movies at the same volume setting: -15 dB.

 

For source material, I used my Kaleidescape Strato to handle the Dolby TrueHD audio on movies downloaded from the movie store, a Microsoft Xbox One S to stream content from Vudu, and an Apple TV 4K to play movies from the Apple Store.

 

I mined my movie collection to find multiple titles I owned across all three services that featured Dolby Atmos soundtracks. This allowed me to cue up the scenes on all three devices and fairly quickly listen to each scene in the different formats.

I watched a number of scenes from six films I’m familiar with: Ready Player One, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Gravity, Venom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. After A-B-C’ing each scene multiple times, I can definitively say two things: 1) the TrueHD audio mix always sounded better, and 2) audio from the Apple TV 4K sounded substantially quieter and more compressed.

 

By far the most readily noticeable audio differences were in the low frequency range. Consistently, film after film, scenes with low-frequency activity were far more dynamic and impressive in TrueHD. The low end had more physical impact, producing frequencies I could feel, as well as pressure waves that rattled doors and windows.

 

The opening “Bell Bottoms” scene from Baby Driver is a perfect example, where the bass notes in the song were thin and indistinct with the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) on Apple TV and Vudu, and the shotgun blasts had little weight. With TrueHD, the bass was articulated, and the shotgun plumbed far lower and louder.

 

The bass-heavy Blade Runner 2049 also offered multiple scenes that showcased the superiority of the TrueHD soundtrack. The pistol Deckard uses in his fight with K in old Vegas had far more impact, as did the rushing water, thunder, and air vehicles flying at the pump station. The fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer soundtrack also sounded richer, producing notes that were more musical and real, with better tone and decay.

 

Textural sounds also had far more dimension and realism with TrueHD. The first challenge race from Ready Player One was a perfect example, featuring a lot of different vehicles with unique-sounding engines. The multi-layered sounds of the engines, crashes, crunches, and explosions had more detail and separation, being less distinct in the DD+ version. The motorcycle chase in Venom exhibited this same sonic loss in DD+, as with the sounds of the drones flying, or the details of bullets striking. It was similar with the crunching and thrashing from the hippo attack in Jumanji.

 

As mentioned above, the audio levels on Apple TV were significantly lower across every film—often 10 dB or more. This was obvious on everything, but especially noticeable on Gravity, where the opening dialogue chatter between Stone and Houston was virtually inaudible, making it completely unintelligible when played at the same levels as the Vudu and Kaleidescape versions.

 

Even with volume levels raised to compensate, the Apple versions of the films just seemed far more compressed, lacking dynamic range. This was similar to what I experienced on the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour streamed from Netflix, making me wonder if there is some issue with the way the Apple TV 4K handles Atmos audio. 

 

Now, while the TrueHD mix was definitely better, that doesn’t mean the streamed mix was bad. Just not as good. This was especially noticeable when played back to back, where the TrueHD audio had a wider, airier, more natural presentation. Outdoor scenes like in the jungles of Jumanji just felt more open and like you were in the actual environment, while the DD+ audio felt more centered on the screen.

 

For luxury cinema owners who’ve invested in getting the best experience possible, there are definite, noticeable audio improvements to be had by purchasing content in the lossless format.

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.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

For years, audiophiles have bemoaned the lackluster quality of MP3 audio files, saying they compress the life out of the music. Yet people still buy, stream, and enjoy MP3 (or similarly compressed) music files by the billions, so are they really that bad?

 

The music analogy of lossy, compressed MP3 files versus lossless, high-resolution .WAV (or similar) files is a great starting point for discussing the audio quality of streaming movie services. Without getting too deep into the weeds, streaming sites like Vudu, Netflix, and Apple deliver an audio bitstream using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) while Blu-ray and UltraHD discs and titles downloaded from the Kaleidescape movie store use Dolby TrueHD. (We could also have a discussion of DTS versus DTS-HD Master or DTS:X, but since no streaming services yet provide or supports these, we’ll table that for later.)

 

A lossy codec like DD+ compresses the original full-resolution file, discarding information the encoder deems the listener won’t miss or wouldn’t have heard to begin with. This significantly reduces the original file size, making it easier to stream. But a lossless format like TrueHD retains all of the original information, resulting in a much larger file, which creates a problem for streaming services but isn’t a factor for a disc or for content downloaded from Kaleidescape.

According to Dolby, “Digital Plus provides up to twice the efficiency of Dolby Digital while adding new features like 7.1-ch audio, support for descriptive video services, and support for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Digital Plus is widely used by streaming and broadcast services to deliver surround sound audio at lower bitrates. 5.1-ch audio in Dolby Digital Plus is typically encoded at bitrates between 192–256 kbps.” (My emphasis.)

 

Dolby also says, “TrueHD is a lossless audio codec used widely on HD and UHD Blu-ray Discs. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 24-bit audio and sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 7.1 audio channels as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. As Dolby TrueHD is a lossless audio codec, the data rate is variable. For example, Dolby TrueHD bitrates average around 6,000 kbps for Dolby Atmos at 48 kHz with peak data rates up to a maximum of 18,000 kbps for high sampling rate content.” (Again, emphasis is mine.)

 

So, what does this mean?

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Well, if you take the highest DD+ encode rate—256 kbps—and compare it to the average for Dolby TrueHD—6,000 kbps—you’ll see that the TrueHD audio stream has more than 23 times more data allocated to it.

 

Fine. But can you actually hear and appreciate the difference? In Part 2, I’ll give you the results of my comparison of the same movies streamed on Vudu and Apple TV and downloaded from Kaleidescape.

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.

High-End TVs Get Design Friendly–Finally

High-End TVs Get Design Friendly--Finally

LG’s OLED88Z9PUA 88-inch 8K TV

If you’re looking to create a multi-use luxury entertainment space in your home, chances are you’re eyeing a direct-view TV over a projection system. That’s not a given, mind you, since there are still any number of reasons to go with a projector. But these days, TVs are where it’s at, especially in terms of picture quality and value.

Still, you’re right to worry about packing a big monolithic black box in the front of your room, or hanging it on the wall of your immaculately decorated entertainment space. The good news is, TV manufacturers are finally starting to devote as much attention to interior design as they are to industrial design, at least at the higher end of the market. In fact, that’s one of the things that truly differentiates luxury TVs from more budget-oriented models these days.

 

In her latest piece, Adrienne Maxwell does a great job of breaking down the current state of the TV market from a performance perspective. But as she hints toward the end, performance isn’t everything. I recently replaced my old TV—a 65-inch flagship UHD model from one of the top manufacturers—with a mid-priced 75-inch model with Dolby Vision capabilities. (The old one only supported HDR10 high dynamic range.) The 75-incher retails for less than half the price the 65-incher did just three years ago, yet it positively blows its pricier forebear out of the water in terms of contrast, color reproduction, screen uniformity, and practically every other picture consideration that matters.

Turn off the screen and turn on the lights, though, and I start to miss my old TV a little. This new overachiever, for all its performance advantages, just kinda sits there. It’s a big, blah rectangle with four spindly feet protruding from the corners that do nothing to conceal the cables connected to the back of the set.

 

Compare that with the new and upcoming slate of flagship offerings from a number of manufacturers, and you can start to see where the high end is really differentiating itself. With little room left to grow in the picture department, today’s upscale-TV makers are decking out their offerings with all sorts of niceties meant to turn TVs from a design vice into a design virtue.

(sorry about the music)

Here are just some of the ways manufacturers are exploring the new frontiers of TV design:

 

Reframing the TV as Art
Samsung’s “The Frame” solves the problem of TV wall clutter by transforming itself into a legitimate piece of artwork when you turn it off. LG does something similar with its Gallery Mode, which uses your TV to display scenic vistas from around the world, updated for every season of the year, when it’s not in use.

Reshaping the TV Itself
Whether you’re looking for something like LG’s rollable OLED TV introduced at CES, or something more radical like the Micro LED displays that are being teased for future public consumption, odds are good that tomorrow’s luxury TV won’t even look like your typical notion of a TV at all. The rollable model literally shrinks into its combination pedestal/built-in sound system like an upside-down window shade. And Micro LED displays consist of Lego-like modular building blocks that let you build a vibrant screen to fit any space, irrespective of traditional notions about display size classes.

High-End TVs Get Design Friendly--Finally

Rethinking the Pedestal
Instead of the awkward stand you’re used to seeing, display designers are exploring new and varied ways of making sure your TV stands up straight. Take a look at Sony’s A9F Master Series OLED (shown above), for example, which sets itself apart with an innovative origami-style kickstand that makes the display positively captivating to look at from the back and sides. LG’s OLED88Z9PUA (say that three times fast) also takes a new approach to the tired old TV stand by affixing the massive display to the top of a simple, elegant open shelf that sits on the floor instead of on a credenza.

 

Whatever form your next display takes, I honestly believe we’re approaching a time in which near-perfect performance is just taken for granted at any price. And when we get there, manufacturers won’t be able to use geeky specifications like nits and dynamic range and awful “smart TV” interfaces to sell displays anymore. What will define the luxury TV of the future is how it fits into your lifestyle, even when—or especially when—it’s turned off.

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.

Castle Rock

Castle Rock

“There is a lot of history in this town. Not all of it good . . .”

 

You might recall my post “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy” (or you might not—in which case, feel free to click that link and then come back to join me here in a bit . . .) where I opined how all of these streaming providers coming up with their own content was really frustrating viewers. One of the shows that inspired that post was Castle Rock, a new Hulu original series that takes place in the Stephen King multiverse.

 

Now, this is a show I really wanted to see when it was announced, as it checked all of my must-see programming boxes. J. J. Abrams involved? Check. Stephen King an executive producer? Check. Set in the Stephen King world with tons of King Easter eggs? Check. A solid cast featuring several actors who’ve previously been in King adaptations? Check.

 

But, as much as I wanted to see Castle Rock, I was not willing to add another streaming subscription to my monthly credit-card statement.

 

Fortunately, you can now experience Castle Rock without a Hulu subscription by purchasing the series on disc (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, or DVD) or via digital download in HD quality at the Kaleidescape store (which is how I watched).

 

So, before I get into my Castle Rock review, we need a little background . . .

Castle Rock

I am a really big Stephen King fan—or Uncle Stevie, as he likes to call himself. I’ve read all of his books, and seen many of the movies that have been adapted from them. The quality of King movies ranges from the fantastic (Shawshank Redemption, It, Misery, Stand by Me)* to the pretty good (The Green Mile, Thinner, Firestarter) to the abysmal (Cell, Lawnmower Man).

The problem with turning a Stephen King novel into a film is that when you try to compress 800-plus pages into a two-hour runtime, you end up chopping out so much material that the results are often just pale reflections of the original. Or you go the other way, trying to stretch something that worked well as a 10- to 20-page short story into a two-hour feature that just blunders around lost. (Two of King’s best adaptations—Shawshank and Stand by Me—were actually novellas, providing just the right amount of source material.)

 

The recent The Dark Tower film is a perfect example. Tower wasn’t a book but rather a magnum opus made up of seven books totaling nearly 4,000 pages. Trying to condense that much story into a single 95-minute film was an impossible task that only ended up angering and insulting fans.

 

King adaptations tend to work especially well as miniseries, where the source material can be given the room it needs to develop story and characters over multiple hours. Hulu showed they knew how to handle this perfectly with its 2016 eight-episode miniseries 11.22.63, which also happened to be the first pairing of Abrams and King. (Another outstanding example is Mr. Mercedes on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.)

 

Castle Rock is a ten-episode series that takes place in a small, fictional Maine town that will be familiar to King fans. Other King works set there include The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and The Mist. It’s important to stress that while King does get an executive producer credit, he wasn’t involved in crafting this story, or apparently much with the production, and it isn’t based on any of his stories.

 

Rather, Castle Rock is a new tale set in King’s established world and features numerous subtle and overt connections and allusions to previous King works. These include Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), Diane “Jackie” Torrance (Jane Levy), niece of The Shining’s axe-wielding Jack Torrance, references to a certain rabid dog, events from The Body (which became Stand by Me), the Juniper Hill Psychiatric Hospital, and a certain prison no one wants to visit called Shawshank.

 

The opening episode, “Severance,” does a nice job laying the groundwork for what to expect from the series along with introducing us to several principal characters, including death row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), who has his own troubled past connections with Castle Rock. He returns to the town after mysterious prisoner The Kid (Bill Skarsgard), who has apparently been kept locked in solitary confinement in a hidden section of Shawshank for years, utters Deaver’s name and nothing else. And there’s recently retired Shawshank warden Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), who had been keeping The

Kid locked away for reasons known only to himself.

 

The series is slow in parts, but definitely picks up for the final episodes, with Episode 7, “The Queen,” being especially good and featuring a fantastic performance by Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver that really deserved some kind of award nomination. Another standout was the gore-filled eighth episode, “Past Perfect,” that actually had my wife scream out.

 

There are some nice King-esque jump

Castle Rock

scares along the way, along with tons of general creepiness as we slowly move towards solving the mystery of who is The Kid and how did he get here, along with the overall question of, “Why is Castle Rock so rotten?”

 

The video is mainly a palette of muted browns, greys, and cool blues, but images are clean and detailed. Even better is the 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix, which does a wonderful job of keeping dialogue understandable while still delivering a lot of sonic atmospherics that certainly add to the experience when watched on a surround system.

 

I appreciated the brief “Inside the Episode” rundowns for each episode by the series creators/writers, which offered some explanations and pointed out some of the Easter eggs. The download also includes two new features: “Castle Rock: Blood on the Page” and “Clockwork of Horror.”

 

Be sure to watch a couple of minutes into the credits after the final episode, “Romans,” as you get a nice glimpse into what might be in store for the second season that Hulu has already committed to.

John Sciacca

 

* I’m sure some of you noticed that I didn’t include Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in this list of fantastic King adaptations. Well, the truth is, while The Shining is indeed a great movie, it veers way away from the original source material, almost to the point of being a completely different work.

Castle Rock

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. 1

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 1
Theo's Corner

This series of posts is meant to document the dramatic new direction I took with my career beginning about two years ago. Sensing that the needs for luxury home entertainment were changing, and that a new market was emerging in that area, I began to explore ways to create theaters that can be easily reproduced while still offering the ultimate movie-watching experience at home. I hope you enjoy the story of my efforts to reinvent home theater.

 

 

My life at the moment is consumed with the challenge of figuring out how to engineer all the various elements of a home theater. For years, I have seen how difficult it is to create each new theater design from scratch and to work my way through the process without a consistent structure, guided only by a vague application of aesthetics.

 

Designers and architects usually have a certain vocabulary they can refer to when they are designing a specific space like a dining room, bedroom, or bathroom. And each of those spaces is made up of specific elements that are the tools that they play with.

 

Those elements can be things like furniture, carpets, fabrics, sinks and other fixtures, and so on. These are specific objects, and their practical and aesthetic function within each space is clearly understood. A living room sofa would of course look as absurd in a bathroom as a bathroom sink would look in a dining room.

 

Once the value of the elements within a specific space is understood, designers have no restrictions on applying their imaginations to play with all of those elements so they can reward their clients with the best possible results.

 

It might seem as if designing a home theater would be the same, but it’s not. We do work with specific elements within a theater, and some of them—like chairs, carpeting, lighting fixtures, and fabrics—are similar to what you would find elsewhere in a home. But that similarity only holds true up to a certain point, because each of these things must be treated somewhat differently in a theater room—or in any type of entertainment space.

 

The main difference is that, whereas the use of technology is optional in most other parts of a home, it is essential to a home theater. And that technology creates demands that make it very difficult to use the same elements that designers use elsewhere in the home without understanding their potential impact on the performance of the room. Things such as acoustics and sight lines must be taken into account. This alone makes designing a theater room much more difficult than designing any other room.

Few if any of the elements in these custom-designed theaters could be easily
and economically reproduced to be used in other theater designs.

Oakland & Park Ave theater photos by Phillip Ennis, Palace theater photo by Michael Weschler

For my entire career until recently, I treated each home theater as utterly unique—partly because each room was unique, especially when it came to its dimensions. Bigger rooms create radically different design demands than smaller rooms. Also, the clients may have preferences for things like colors that won’t work at all well in a home theater space, mainly because they would draw attention away from the screen.

 

Each time I approached a new design, I would have to take all of these variables—such as room size and layout, audio/video equipment, furnishings, fixtures, carpeting, and client expectations—into account and then create a new recipe from scratch. But after having done this repeatedly over so many years, I began to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to approach home theater design—one that would be far more efficient but without compromising the final product.

 

So I began to try to figure out whether we, as designers and architects, could codify what it means to design a theater, and if I could come up with a recipe that would deliver more consistent results. Top of my list was to create a way to protect us from the failure that often comes from mixing ingredients without really understanding if the end result will be pleasing.

 

In the next installments of this series, I will describe how I created a more disciplined approach to home theater design that allowed me to not only collaborate with other artists on my designs but to engineer the various elements of a theater so they could be manufactured in a way that allows luxury theaters to be installed in a fraction of the time and cost of my custom designs.

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.

Ep. 3: Dolby Atmos–Yay or Nay?

Episode 3 begins with hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger and Cineluxe contributor John Sciacca talking about CES highlights before launching into a debate on the pros & cons of Dolby Atmos surround sound. At 10:46, legendary writer/editor Brent Butterworth joins the discussion to stake out his own position on Atmos and to describe some favorite demo scenes. At 27:01, Brent talks about his experiences with luxury home entertainment. And at 33:23 the episode ends with a quick round of thoughts on recent movies that might stand the test of time.

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UHD TVs Hit New Heights in 2019

Vizio P Series Quantum LED UHD TV

Vizio’s P-Series Quantum LED UHD TVs

We’ve been talking a lot about video displays lately. I described a few luxury TV designs shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and John Sciacca discussed the choice of front projection versus direct-view, highlighting the pros and cons of each.

 

If you’ve settled on a direct-view TV as your display method of choice for an upcoming home theater or media room, you’re now faced with the daunting task of choosing which one to buy. With prices that run the gamut from dirt cheap to “You want me to spend how much?!”, you might be asking yourself, is it worth it to pay more? What actually distinguishes a high-performance TV these days?

 

The truth is, even a budget LED/LCD TV can look really good for everyday TV watching and streaming. You can get great detail, solid image brightness, and relatively accurate color. Most budget TVs now have a 4K resolution and even claim to support High Dynamic Range—but there’s the rub. Budget TVs seldom have a high enough contrast ratio to really do HDR justice, and many of them can’t deliver the expanded color gamut that’s available in Ultra HD content. So when we’re talking about building a high-performance media system that brings out the best in your UHD source content—be it movies, games, or streaming—there’s a clear advantage in moving up the price chain.

UHD TVs Hit New Heights in 2019

LG’s Signature W8 “wallpaper” OLED UHD TV

Top-shelf TVs like Samsung’s QLED lineup, Sony’s Master Series of OLED and LED/LCD TVs, Vizio’s PQ Series, and LG’s OLED TVs don’t just support the input of an HDR signal. They actually have the contrast ratio to deliver a fantastic HDR viewing experience, and that begins with the ability to produce a deep black level.

 

OLED technology is the current standard when it comes to producing truly deep, dark blacks, but LED-based displays that use full-array backlighting with good local dimming can give OLED a run for its money. Most budget LED/LCD TVs don’t use local dimming at all, or the local dimming consists of so few dimmable zones that it’s ineffective.

 

High-performance TVs are also capable of much higher peak brightness, which is essential for reproducing bright highlights in HDR content. When we say an HDR TV can crank out 1,500 to 2,000 nits, we don’t mean that it’s doing so constantly with

every type of content—that would be painful to watch. But the beauty of HDR content is that the highlights in a scene—like the sun, the moon, or the burst of fire in an explosion—can be very bright, more akin to what our eyes can see in the real world. LED/LCD TVs still trump OLED in their brightness capabilities, but with OLED, the black level is so dark that the perceived brightness of HDR highlights is still fantastic. Budget TVs (and, frankly, front projectors) just don’t have the brightness capabilities to bring out the best in HDR.

 

One performance element that often gets overlooked is the quality of the TV screen’s anti-reflective filter. Especially in today’s multi-purpose media rooms, people don’t always watch movies in the dark, and a good anti-reflective filter is essential for rejecting the ambient light coming from lamps and windows to cut down on screen glare and preserve image contrast. High-performance models are usually better in this respect, too.

 

The final piece of the high-performance puzzle is the ability to produce the expanded color gamut in UHD content. A wide color gamut can be achieved in various ways. Quantum dot technology is used in many top-shelf LCD displays (it’s the Q in Samsung’s QLED and Vizio’s PQ) because of its ability to accurately and efficiently deliver the wide color gamut at the very bright levels required in HDR content.

 

Of course, performance isn’t the only thing people look for when designing a nice media room. Top-shelf TVs also tend to have nicer aesthetics, so you don’t mind looking at them 

when the screen is off. They may be thinner and lighter, with more interesting bezel and stand designs. They may house the electronics/input panel in a separate box that’s more easily hidden away in a cabinet. They may integrate more easily with advanced wholehouse control systems. And they may have intelligent voice control and other user-friendly features built in.

 

Hey, a flagship TV is certainly not right for everyone. Most home entertainment enthusiasts will probably settle on something in between the low and high ends, and that’s OK. But for anyone looking to create the ultimate cinematic experience at home, there are plenty of reference-quality TV options to choose from this year.

—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.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

I feel like Bohemian Rhapsody is one of those films that either really appealed to you or really didn’t register at all. I was born in 1970, so I grew up during a time when Queen’s music was played a fair bit on the radio. But I was only a casual fan, and outside of their Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits II albums, my music collection is Queen-free. I was curious to see the film, though, and learn more about the band, especially since I enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance in the recent Papillion remake.

 

I say this because I went into the movie knowing practically nothing about Queen outside of its hits, and Freddie Mercury’s stage presence, mustache, and wife-beater T-shirts. So my experience and impression of this movie will probably be different from those of someone who was a real fan of the band and familiar with its history. Bohemian Rhapsody follows Queen’s formation and meteoric rise to success, specifically focusing on the life of flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury, culminating in a terrific recreation of the band’s epic Live Aid performance in 1985 and Mercury’s admission to the band that he had contracted AIDS. 

 

A movie focusing on actual people—especially someone with such a bigger-than-life personality as Mercury—rises or falls on the quality and believability of the actors portraying them, and I found Malek’s portrayal of Mercury to be spectacular, capturing his nuances and stage mannerisms as I remember them. This is helped quite a bit by some serious prosthetics to recreate Mercury’s signature overbite (caused by having four additional incisors, according to the film, which may or may not have contributed to his extended vocal range). In some of the early scenes I felt I could see the makeup, but that could have been more a factor of the 4K transfer being a tad too revealing. Is Malek a caricature of the actual Mercury? Maybe, but to my eyes the performance worked perfectly. Also, Gwilym Lee—or rather Gwilym Lee’s impressive wigs—transformed him into a lookalike of guitarist Brian May. (The film also features an almost unrecognizable Mike Myers as EMI executive Ray Foster.)

 

The 2 hour and 14 minute run time zips by, moving from one milestone in the band’s career to the next. This is partly due to its hyper-compressed timelines, taking events that happened over years in some cases and boiling them down to a single scene. I’m not saying Bohemian plays fast and loose with the truth exactly, but it left me feeling like you weren’t getting the whole story and were watching a Cliff Notes version of actual events.

Bohemian Rhapsody

For example, the opening would have you believe Freddie just happened upon a band who’s lead singer suddenly quit and, “Guess what guys? I happen to write songs and sing a bit.” In actuality, Mercury had been writing songs and playing music for years, had been singing for a couple of other bands, and was friends with the band that would eventually become Queen. It also suggests “We Will Rock You” was just thrown together by May when Mercury was a few minutes late for a band meeting. And, contrary to the ending, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until two years after the famous Live Aid concert.

 

Whether it was naivety, ignorance, or the culture of the times, Mercury being gay wasn’t part of his narrative that I remember while growing up. (To be fair, I also remember thinking The Village People were just a cool bunch of guys who liked dressing up in wacky costumes, embodying different characters. Yeah, it was a different time and news travelled a lot slower back in the ‘70s . . . and I was like 10.) The film certainly addresses Freddie’s sexuality, but does so staying outside the bedroom. And like many of the other time-compressed moments, he seemingly goes from a happy, committed, hetero relationship to, “OK, I’m gay now,” following one lingering glance from a trucker outside a men’s room.

 

Mercury seemed to be constantly running away from things—his Zanzibar birthplace, his Parsi background, his family, his name (Farrokh Bulsara), his girlfriend, and ultimately his band—and rushing towards a future and lifestyle that ultimately killed him. I definitely came away from the movie with a far greater appreciation of the talent of both Queen and Mercury. The film’s portrayal of the recording sessions for their first album and “Bohemian Rhapsody” showed an experimentation and creativity that reminded me of Brian Wilson’s efforts with Pet Sounds or The Beatles and George Martin on Sgt. Pepper’s. I finished the film wanting to go to Tidal to experience their catalogue.

 

For a movie focusing on a rock band, it’s crucial the music sound great, and it truly looked like the songs were being played and sung by the actors. I felt Rhapsody scored a definite A here, and apparently they blended Malik’s singing in with Mercury’s (and others) vocals. The live shows sound especially good, with big kick-drum beats that send bass waves into your chest, and the finale at Live Aid is just terrific.

 

One major disappointment is that the Kaleidescape digital download doesn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie where music plays such a starring role, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with 20th Century Fox, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films. 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.

 

For me, Bohemian Rhapsody does a great job of packing nearly 20 years of time into a cohesive story, and gets enough of the big stuff right that you can overlook the little factual errors.

 

It is available now for digital download, a full three-weeks before it will be released on physical media.

John Sciacca

Bohemian Rhapsody

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.