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How to Find the Perfect Integrator

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

I have been a technology integrator for more than two decades, and many consider me an industry expert. I have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Worth, USA Today, and many other publications. My firm has won over a hundred industry awards, and our systems have been featured in world-famous media outlets like E!, HGTV, Fox, NBC, Architectural Digest, and Esquire. Not to boast, but on paper I look pretty impressive. Trust me, I am pretty underwhelming in person, but my team has accomplished a lot of cool stuff over the years.

 

I bring all of this up because I think I’m a pretty obvious choice if you want a top-tier integrator to deck out your new home with the latest and greatest technologies. Maybe I’m not the only choice, but at least a top contender, right?

 

Well, the reality is that most homeowners don’t really factor any of that stuff in when they choose a technology integrator. They tend to make really bad decisions and hire really bad integrators—or worse, they let some other trade like electricians,

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

security guys, or IT guys perform this very specialized work.

 

Why don’t consumers do any due diligence when technology plays such an important role in everyone’s lives?

 

And why hasn’t everyone caught on to the dirty little secret of the custom installation industry? 

 

What is the dirty little secret? 

A private equity firm that wanted to invest in the luxury home automation market recently surveyed homeowner’s who purchased home technology systems. The results were staggering. Over 50% of homeowners with home automation systems were “unsatisfied” with their technology. This is a lower satisfaction rate than cable companies and cellphone companies (historically the lowest industry satisfaction rates). So again, what is the dirty little secret?

 

Most installation firms . . . stink.

 

Why?

 

The AV and automation industry is the wild west. There is no government regulation, incredibly little formalized training, and in many states no licensing whatsoever is required. Anybody can pretty much hang their shingle and claim to be an AV expert regardless of their abilities. Even if there is a contractor’s license requirement, it has more to do with building guidelines than 

technical expertise in systems deployment. There are probably about 15,000 companies nationwide that call themselves “AV guys” or “integrators.” I would only let about 10% of them into my home. 

 

Well, most folks can instinctively tell the difference between a great firm and a fly-by-night, right? 

 

Uh . . . NO!

 

Unfortunately, most consumers know little to nothing about technology and have lots of anxiety about hiring a tech firm. Given that, anybody who walks in their door and has more knowledge than them will seem like an expert.

 

The typical decision-making process goes like this: “Who does my neighbor use?” “Who seemed like a nice guy?” “Who does my interior designer like?” There is typically no research on the firm, no reference checks, and most importantly no vetting to see if the firm they like has done a project of the scope and scale or has any expertise in the products they want to use. The guy who did a soundbar

installation for your brother-in-law may not be the right guy to completely automate your home with Crestron, Savant, or Lutron—or deliver that amazing home theater experience.

 

Most consumers approach this industry thinking that most companies are probably reputable, probably sell the same stuff, and roughly have the same technical knowledge. But the reality—as people in the industry know—is much different.

 

So how does someone hire the right firm? Here are some simple question to ask:

 

Can I speak to three recent clients with similar scope and size projects?

You don’t want to be a guinea pig for this firm. They should have a proven track record of similar projects.

Are you a dealer for all of this stuff we want?

You need to be able to get support on the product in your home. If the integrator can’t get the manufacturer to answer a call, you’re in trouble.

 

What is your service policy and how do I get help after you install this stuff?

Most companies falter after the sale. They have no formal process to handle servicing their clients and typically devote all of their resources and staff to the big projects in process (with the big checks being handed out) and not the $150 service call. Find out how they handle service requests and after-hours problems, and if they have dedicated staff to address service issues.

 

Do you do all this work with in-house staff or do you subcontract any of it out?

Again, back to service. You want the company to be able to service you after the fact without relying on a pile of other subcontractors.

HTA Logo

A terrific resource to help you find a great integrator is the Home Technology Association. This is the first group to realize that 90% of companies in this trade wear clown shoes.

 

They have developed a certification system that puts integrators through the ringer so consumers can dramatically improve their chances of success. Each HTA Certified company must have a minimum of nine references from industry experts, design/build pros, and manufacturers. They must demonstrate that they have technical proficiency, have a great history of customer service, and have a stellar industry reputation.

 

I have been through the application process, and it is impossible to pass certification unless you are an exceptional company. They also do a terrific job of segregating the installers into three tiers: Estate—if you are a gajillionaire building a giant house; Luxury—if you are just a regular wealthy person; and Foundation—for the guys like me with regular-size homes. The HTA is the easy button for selecting an integrator, and as an integrator, the list of certified companies is really strong. It represents the best of the best.

 

E.T.

These are just a few easy ones to get you towards making a good choice. The bottom line is, don’t hire a technology partner unless you ask the important questions and do some research. Remember, the chances of you having a happy tech experience is less than 50% unless you do a little homework. You don’t have to understand tech in order to pick a great company.

Eric Thies

Eric Thies is the Founder of DSI Luxury Technology in Los Angeles. Eric is a board member
of Azione and an unpaid and overworked volunteer for the Home Technology Association.

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

For those of us who grew up in the days of three (maybe four) broadcast TV stations—before the advent of cable and home video, much less streaming—the wealth of available video content today can be a little staggering. 

 

But how much of it is actually worth watching? That depends largely on what you want to watch and how much you care about the quality of the presentation. But even figuring out which sources excel over the others when it comes to quality can be difficult, especially given that streaming video sources (once undeniably the bottom of the barrel) continue to get better and better.

 

For now (and it’s important to stress that this can and will change over time), the pecking order looks something like this, from worst to best:

 

Cable/Satellite
One of the biggest trends in the home entertainment market over the past decade—cord cutting—started largely as a backlash against draconian pricing models forced on consumers by big telecom conglomerates. Simply put, subscriptions to a streaming service like Hulu—or even buying shows à la carte via iTunes or Amazon—just made more financial sense for a lot of folks.

 

These days, though, that’s not the only consideration. Today’s high-performance displays—even cheap ones—are so revealing that watching Grey’s Anatomy via satellite or cable can be downright insulting to the eyes, leading many to switch to streaming just for the upgraded experience.

 

Of course, it’s hard to ditch your subscription-based linear TV service if you’re a huge sports fan—especially on the professional, national level. But there are alternatives.

 

Broadcast Streaming
If you still dig the traditional linear model of broadcast TV (in other words, everything is parceled up into channels and This Is Us comes on at 9E/8C on Tuesdays), but can’t abide the quality of satellite or cable, or just don’t want to pay for all of those channels you never watch, broadcast streaming might be a better choice. Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now allow you to cut the cord but leave it dangling. Most offer some form of cloud DVR so you can record your favorite shows, and most look at least somewhat better than the traditional alternative, assuming you have a decent-enough Internet pipeline.

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast
Yep, you read that correctly. The tried-and-true TV antenna is making its second comeback (its first being the early days of HDTV, when cable and satellite were struggling to catch up). These days, you can buy DVRs that allow you to record content straight from the airwaves, along with new antennas that aren’t as ghastly looking as the whale skeletons of bygone eras. And oddly enough, those broadcast images almost always look better than cable, satellite, or broadcast streaming thanks to less compression.

 

YouTube
Of all the non-linear streaming services on the Internet, YouTube demands its own spot on this list, but figuring out where to put it is a tough one. In addition to the glut of cat videos and Russian dashcams, you’ll also find some really nice-looking regular programming, as well as a wealth of nearly perfect-looking demo material that’ll put any 4K HDR display to the test. 

 

Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and the Like
Whether you’re looking for episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the latest Marvel blockbuster, or even compelling original content like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, streaming services are getting better and better all the time in terms of video quality. In fact, with certain content, it can be difficult to tell a good Vudu 4K UHD stream from the UHD Blu-ray disc. Granted, some of these services look better than others.

 

Some of them (like Netflix and Hulu) offer a vast collection of streaming content for one monthly fee while others are à la carte. And Amazon offers a bit of both. But chances are that no matter which pay model you prefer, you’ll be able to find tons of great-looking 4K HDR video just a few clicks (sometimes a few frustrating clicks) away.

 

UHD Blu-ray and Kaleidescape
While streaming services may be pushing video quality to the point of diminishing returns, there’s no denying that if you want the absolute best picture—and sound—for every movie or TV show you watch, you’re going to have to pick between UHD Blu-ray discs if you’re old-school or Kaleidescape downloads if you want to keep your shelves clutter-free. Granted, as mentioned above, streaming can come dangerously close to matching the quality of these full-bandwidth sources, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough. What’s more, the Dolby Digital+ audio found on most streaming services usually can’t compete with the lossless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks available only on discs or full-sized downloads, especially if you have a decent-enough sound system.

 

Again, the quality of all of these services is a moving target, and what’s true today may not be true a year from now. And when you look at the various streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, quality can vary quite a bit from one to the other, and even from device to device. So comparing them fully demands more scrutiny—a subject we’ll be digging into more in future posts.

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.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

In Part One of this post, I detailed the various pros and cons associated with going with a front projector and screen as the video display in your media room/theater. Here, we’ll dissect direct-view TVs to help you determine whether they’re the right technology choice for your room.

 

Pros

 

A Complete Solution
Unlike a projector, which is just a display device requiring amplification, speakers, and sources in order to perform, a direct-view TV can function entirely on its own. It has a built-in ATSC tuner for cable or off-air tuning, Wi-Fi access to the Internet or streaming Ultra HD content like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and speakers to deliver audio. (Granted, the

speakers on most TVs are abysmal, and any luxury cinema would include a separate surround audio system.) But, for those wanting the simplest option, a direct-view TV might be the right call.

 

Better Performance at Smaller Screen Sizes
Sometimes bigger isn’t better, and a 65-, 75-, or 85-inch direct-view screen might be the perfect size for your room. While you could get a projection screen that small, the performance tradeoffs of going with a projector versus a direct-view set just wouldn’t make sense. If you’re looking for a screen size under 100 inches, direct-view is probably the right call.

 

Flagship Performance at an Affordable Price
Projectors in the luxury market can easily cost $30,000 to $100,000. But a truly state-of-the-art direct-view LED or OLED set can be had for a fraction of that.

 

Easier to Install
Since the electronics in many entertainment spaces are located right below where the TV will be installed, with power nearby, installation is straightforward. But since projectors are typically ceiling mounted on the other side of the room, they can be far more difficult to get power and wire to in a retrofit situation. Obviously, if you’re building or remodeling a room, this will be less of a factor. 

 

Unaffected by Ambient Light
While even a single lightbulb can wash out a projector’s image, direct-view sets can happily exist in rooms with virtually any amount of light. If it isn’t practical to fully darken your space at all times of day, or you prefer doing your movie/TV watching or gaming with some lights on, direct-view sets will give you a lot more flexibility. Granted, TVs can have issues with reflections, but these are often far easier to address than too much light on a projection screen.

 

Can Accommodate HDR/Dolby Vision
To bear the Ultra HD Alliance’s “Premium” logo, a TV’s HDR (high dynamic range) technology must be able to simultaneously produce both exceedingly deep blacks and bright whites. While many new projectors can display HDR content, they offer only a fraction of the performance that direct-view TVs can achieve. And no current home projector can handle the increasingly popular Dolby Vision HDR standard, which uses metadata to adjust the dynamic range settings of a movie scene by scene. While projectors continue to get better at handling HDR content, they’ll likely always lag behind direct-view sets, which can produce a far brighter and punchier image.

 

Can Produce 32 Million Pixels
As ridiculous as it sounds—especially since many people are just now considering the move to 4K sets—8K was the video talk of the recent CES. Never mind that most broadcast content providers still can’t even deliver 1080p, let alone any quantity of 4K content, and that there’s no solution even in the pipeline to 

actually deliver an 8K image. Put all that aside. 8K is not only coming, it’s here, with Samsung models already available. Now, I’ll be honest—the 85-inch 8K Samsung TV I saw at this past CEDIA was nothing short of flat-out stunning. Whether that was due to the oodles of extra pixels on screen, or the fantastic video processing and 4,000 nits of brightness, I can’t say. But the likely scenario is the next generation of flagship direct-view TVs will be 8K (7680 x 4320), and early indications are they will produce spectacular images from native-4K content.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

Direct-view TVs perform much better than front-projection systems in brightly lit rooms

Cons

 

More Expensive for Larger Screens
While an 85-inch screen size is nothing to sneeze at, if you want to go larger than that, it could cost you. A lot. While you can get a 85-inch set for under $5,000 (or snag the 8K Samsung mentioned above for under $15,000), prices go up exponentially above that size. For example, while the flagship Sony 75-inch Z9F set costs around $6,000, the 100-inch Z9D will run you $60,000! LG unveiled the world’s largest OLED TV at 88 inches during this past CES with no price announced yet, but expect it to be . . . high. And if you think Samsung’s 219-inch modular-design The Wall is right for you, plan on spending well over six figures when it actually becomes available for order.

 

Room Dominating
We’re a luxury website, so perhaps the prospect of dropping a ton of cash on a flagship direct-view set isn’t a deal killer. I mean, Ferrari is selling $300,000 488 GTBs faster than it can produce them, so clearly the luxury buyer is alive, well, and spending. But, one thing you’ll have a tough time doing with your massive direct-view set is hiding it or decorating around it.

 

Hinders Speaker Placement
The ideal speaker layout places the front left, center, and right speakers on the same horizontal plane as the center of the screen image, ensuring that sounds perfectly track the on-screen action. With an acoustically transparent projection screen, this isn’t a problem, but with a massive direct-view set, placing the center channel speaker becomes more problematic. Generally, the solution is to install it below the screen, and while this often does an OK job of marrying the dialogue to the screen, results can vary depending on how large your TV is, how low the speaker is installed, and how far the seats are from the screen.

 

Poor Off-angle Viewing
LED TVs can exhibit a real shift in image brightness and picture quality as you move off-center. If your media room is wide, with seats at extreme angles from the screen, those seats may have a compromised experience. Also, glare and reflections can become an issue when sitting well off-center.

 

Since choosing the right display technology is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make when creating a media or theater room, being armed with all the information necessary to choose—along with finding a competent installer—will definitely help your system turn out to be the best it can!

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.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 1

Should You Get a Projector or TV? Pt. 1

When determining the look and design of your new media room or home theater, you’re quickly going to be confronted with a major decision: The size and style of your video display. While the choice ultimately boils down to whether you’ll go with a front projector or a traditional direct-view TV, the number of factors that can go into making that decision can sometimes make it difficult. But you might find it easy to choose if one factor quickly sways your decision, since each technology has definite advantages.

In Part One, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of having a separate projector and screen. In Part Two, I’ll do the same for direct-view TVs.

 

Pros

 

No Limit on Screen Size

While TV screens are measured in inches, projection screens come in feet, and you can get a screen literally as big as your wall can support, meaning you can have a truly cinematic experience in your home. And while people might debate whether they can or can’t see the resolution improvements of 4K on their 65-inch TVs, you’ll be basking in all of the noticeably sharper detail on your 200-inch screen!

 

Less Expensive to Have Bigger Screens

Dollar per inch, it’s tough to beat front projection. Where the price jump from a 75-inch to a 100-inch direct-view set is exponential, it might only be a few hundred dollars more to go from a 110- to a 120-inch screen.

 

Supports Multiple Aspect Ratios

People primarily talk about two different aspect ratios: 16:9 (the rectangular shape of modern HDTVs) and 2.35:1 (the wider shape of many films). But in reality, modern filmmakers often use various aspects to capture a specific look or feel. More and more original content on Netflix and Amazon uses aspect ratios other than 16:9. With a projection screen and a masking system, you can make sure you’re always seeing the image as the director intended, with no distracting black bars.

Optimal Speaker Placement

The ideal speaker layout places the front left, center, and right speakers on the same horizontal plane as the center of the screen, ensuring that the sound exactly tracks the on-screen action. These speakers can be perfectly placed behind an acoustically transparent projection screen, just like in a movie theater.

 

Can Disappear When Not in Use

If you want a movie theater but don’t want your room to look like a movie theater, a front-projection system offers several solutions. Even the largest screens can be motorized to roll up and out of sight, and a projector can be concealed as well, with just a glass porthole in a wall or soffit for the lens to fire through.

 

Still Supports 3D

Direct-view display manufacturers have all abandoned support for 3D over the past few years, but nearly all projectors designed for home use still have this capability.

 

Offers Many Screen Material Options

When you buy a direct-view TV, you get what you get, but when you buy a projection screen, you have a myriad of options. Your installer can help you select the right material, color, and gain to make sure you get the most out of your projector, room, and screen size.

Should You Get a Projector or TV? Pt. 1

Stewart Filmscreen’s Gemini has separate screens for daytime & nighttime viewing

Cons

 

Needs a Dark Room

A projector can’t actually reproduce black, so it projects nothing where black should be. That means, to have black up on screen, the room needs to be black—or at least dark. Since projectors rely on dark rooms to produce their best image quality, that might not be your best choice if there’s any amount of light in your space. Sure, ambient-light-rejecting screens like Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond or Stewart Filmscreen’s Phantom HALR do an admirable job of producing viewable images in lit rooms, but they can’t deliver the same picture quality as viewing in a darkened room.

 

Not Always Good for Gaming
Using a projector can be a con, depending on the types of games you like to play. Many projectors have an input delay of up to several seconds, which means there can be a noticeable lag between when you press a button and something happens on the screen. While this isn’t an issue when pausing a movie, it definitely can be when playing a videogame where milliseconds of reaction time can be the difference between onscreen life and death. Also, if you play games that require standing in front of the screen, you might find yourself blocking the projector’s light path and creating life-sized shadow puppets instead.

 

HDR and Brightness Inferior to TVs

HDR (high dynamic range) can deliver both deep, detailed blacks and ultra-bright colors, but projectors can only deliver a fraction of the necessary brightness levels. This makes HDR on a projection system tricky, with manufacturers searching for the best solution to tone map the high-brightness images for their projectors. Also, outside of a custom, dual Christie Dolby Cinema projection setup, you currently won’t find any projector that can support dynamic HDR metadata like DolbyVision. That isn’t to say projectors can’t pull off HDR, and some of the new laser-based models look pretty spectacular. But direct-view sets will likely always be superior in this regard, able to produce images with more punch and contrast.

 

Lack of 8K Support

I hate to even mention this, but 8K is now apparently a thing, so here we are. Yet no projector manufacturers seem to be seriously pursuing 8K resolution. This is especially surprising since if there was any technology that could benefit from 8K, it would be a massive front-projection screen. (But I digress . . .) I’ve only seen one projector that can deliver 8K resolution, and it was nearly the size of a small car, required its own ventilation system, and cost a wallet-blistering $400,000! (JVC will be launching a native 4K projector that uses the company’s eShift pixel-shifting technology to deliver a pseudo-8K image at a far more reasonable sub-$20,000.)

 

In my next post, I’ll break down the pros and cons of going with a traditional, direct-view TV set for your entertainment room’s display.

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.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Hunter Killer. It went in and out of theaters nearly as quickly as the first explosions occur in the film. HK belongs to that increasing group of films that have a huge divide between critics and moviegoers, with the film generally panned by critics with a 37% approval rating and average score of 4.7/10, but with CinemaScore audiences giving it a far more generous average grade of A-.

 

I originally stumbled across HK while scrolling through the trailers of upcoming films on my Apple TV, and I was sold. I’m a nut for submarine movies—Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, U-571, Crimson Tide . . . I’ve seen ‘em all. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good sub film, and none showcasing the latest technologies of the newest real-world boats, and the trailer for HK was action packed. So, when HK arrived on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack a full two weeks before being available on disc, it was a no-brainer for me.

 

There are essentially two types of submarines in the modern Navy, often referred to as Boomers and Hunter Killers. Boomers—technically Ohio-class ballistic- and guided-missile submarines—lurk around the world’s oceans as silently as possible, lying in wait and ready to unleash a maelstrom of ballistic missiles on an unsuspecting enemy should the launch order come. (That was the USS Alabama in Crimson Tide.) Hunter Killers—Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, of which there are currently 16 in active service—spend their time looking for and then tracking enemy subs and other ships, constantly prepared to destroy them before they can launch their payload should war break out.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a Virginia-class attack submarine, and its crew captained by the very non-traditional and unorthodox (“He didn’t go to Annapolis”) newly appointed captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as they sail off to investigate the disappearance of a US submarine feared lost in the Arctic. Concurrently, a four-man team of Navy SEALs infiltrates a Russian naval base and discovers a coup underway. After witnessing the Russian President taken prisoner and seeing the defense minister’s moves to goad the US into war, the SEALs are tasked with the mission of “rescuing” the Russian President and whisking him away to safety. These two plotlines ultimately converge in the film’s climax. In between is lots of gunfire, rocket launches, and sub-on-sub torpedo action.

 

The picture quality is pretty terrific, with loads of detail, especially in the brightly lit outdoor scenes. HDR is used to good effect in the dimly lit submarine, with its myriad of screens and displays. My one nit is that the 4K transfer is so good that some of the underwater sub-chase scenes ended up looking fake.

Hunter Killer

The interior sets of the USS Arkansas, however, look amazingly real and authentic. Apparently, the US Navy was involved with the film’s production and design team in developing the look of the sub, and it really shows. Every scene inside the sub looks and feels real, which goes a long way towards giving a sub movie credibility. Butler also spent several days aboard an actual Virginia-class sub while underway to get a feel for daily submarine life and operations.

Sonically, the Atmos mix does exactly what it should, and sounds mostly fantastic in a home theater. From the opening scenes, you are plunged underwater with sounds of the ocean rolling and bubbling overhead. The Arkansas is also filled with tons of little ambient sounds that place you right in the midst of the boat. There is plenty of low-frequency info to give your subwoofer a workout, specifically the deep, steady thrum of the sub’s turbine. Dialogue is mostly intelligible, but there were several scenes where it was buried in the midst of background sounds, making it difficult to understand.

 

Is HK a good movie? Meh. Let’s just say I doubt “cerebral” would be anyone’s adjective of choice to describe it. It also has its share of head-scratching moments, as well as scenes that stretch your suspension of disbelief (submarines don’t follow other boats just feet off the stern, or race around the ocean floor, zig-zagging through impossibly narrow channels with the agility of a Ferrari navigating Nurburgring). And Butler seems hellbent on being angry, defying all established protocol, and arguing with his XO in nearly every scene.

 

A far better question is, “Is HK an entertaining movie?” and if you’re a fan of the action or military genre, the answer is a definite yes. A good metric might be whether or not you enjoyed Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen or its sequel, London Has Fallen, as Hunter Killer is similar in pacing and style but (obviously) set on a sub. The movie’s two-plus-hour run time zips by, and there is constantly something happening to keep you engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for a movie where you can sit back and just enjoy the action unfolding onscreen and the dynamic Atmos audio mix, HK is the perfect Friday-night popcorn flick.

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

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.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

Of all the excellent points John Sciacca made in his latest piece, “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy,one in particular leapt right off the page at me. Near the end, he recommends an ingenious solution to the problem of Peak Subscription Saturation: A unified “Premier Pass,” where streaming services join forces under a single banner, a single subscription, and divvy up the profits between them.

 

Unfortunately, that seems like an unlikely solution, especially given the corporate politics that have plagued and continue to plague streaming conglomerates like Hulu. But there’s already a precedent for John’s idea. One of the best-kept secrets in all of geekdom, it’s called VRV (pronounced “verve”), and it’s quickly becoming my go-to source for streaming video.

 

A word of warning for you Muggles in the audience: The next few sentences are going to get pretty geeky, so feel free to jump past the next line break. At any rate, I stumbled across VRV in my quest for a way to watch the streaming service Project Alpha in my media room via my Roku. As of late, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Critical Role, in which a group of voice-actor friends stream their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for the world to watch. It’s honestly one of the

most compelling and entertaining programs I’ve ever seen. And yes, you can watch the show for free on YouTube, but we wanted to financially support its creators as well as gain access to the exclusive character portraits, hit-point counters, and ad-free graphics available only to paid subscribers of Alpha. (You can see those in the clip at right, and contrast them with the graphics for the free Critical Role YouTube broadcasts here).

But Project Alpha isn’t available on Roku, so we kept watching on the YouTube app instead. It wasn’t until some months later that I stumbled across the VRV app on Roku completely by accident, and found it offered Alpha content. That immediately seemed like the solution to my problem. What I didn’t realize is that it would be a solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

What makes VRV great is that it houses a number of geeky streaming services under one umbrella, from the aforementioned Project Alpha (split there into separate Geek & Sundry and Nerdist channels), to classic cartoon channels like Boomerang, to anime streams from Crunchyroll and the like. And you can either subscribe to them à la carte and pay anywhere from $2.49 to $6.95 per service or spring for the lot of 12 different services for $9.99 a month total.

There’s also a free 30-day trial—during which I noticed that CuriosityStream (a documentary service I already subscribed to separately) was included in the package price. Add up the cost of separate CuriosityStream and Project Alpha subscriptions, and you’re within spitting distance of $9.99 a month anyway, so I just went for the complete package and canceled my standalone CuriosityStream sub. Purchased on their own, the subscriptions to all of these services (via VRV or directly) would add up to nearly 50 bucks a month. So, if nothing else, it’s a value.

 

But more than that, it solves the problem of jumping from app to app, service to service, in search of something to watch. Most nights, my wife and I fire up the VRV app when she gets home from work and don’t leave it until we shut down the media room at bedtime. If we’re not in the mood to start a new episode of Critical Role, there’s a vast collection of old Looney Tunes cartoons just a few clicks away, or that David Attenborough documentary we’ve been meaning to check out, or a compelling collection of curated spooky movies courtesy of Shudder if the mood strikes.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV also has something most streaming apps don’t: A really gorgeous and simple-to-navigate user interface that includes the features you might expect—like a “Continue Watching” shortcut and a watchlist management tool that puts Amazon Instant’s to shame—along with some unexpected niceties like a universal search function.

 

I get that not everyone will be into the sorts of programming offered by VRV, like video gaming or roleplaying or LARPing or miniature painting or quantum physics or classic cartoons, much less Japanese animation. But if nothing else, VRV serves as a role model for how independent streaming providers can learn to get along.

 

Sure, Boomerang may not be getting as much coin out of me every month as they would if I subscribed to their service directly. But guess what? I almost certainly wouldn’t drop $4.99 a month on Boomerang by itself, no matter how much I love some old-school Scooby-Doo.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that a bunch of streaming services targeted at nerds were the ones to figure this out. Despite the fact that geek culture dominates popular culture these days, all of this is still—for whatever reason—viewed as niche content. So, the corporate overlords at Geek & Sundry and Nerdist (both owned by Legendary Entertainment), Crunchyroll (owned by WarnerMedia), Boomerang (Turner Broadcasting), NickSplat (Viacom), and others probably figured their chances were better if they banded together.

 

As with most things, though, the geeks were simply the first to figure out a way to make this new paradigm work to everyone’s benefit. Because if mainstream entertainment providers don’t follow the same template eventually, the streaming landscape is going to turn into The Hunger Games. And the odds won’t necessarily be in anyone’s favor.

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.

Demo Scenes: Deepwater Horizon

This is the third in our series featuring great demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system can do. Deepwater Horizon joins Baby Driver and Ready Player One as a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like iTunes.

—ed.

 

Deepwater Horizon is part of a trilogy of films (including Lone Survivor and Patriots Day) that pair director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg recreating actual events for the big screen. (The duo also combined on a fourth film, Mile 22, that is decidedly not based on actual events.) The movie focuses on the events leading up to the uncontrollable blowout of the BP deep-sea oil exploration platform in 2010, which created the largest manmade disaster in US history.

 

The film is packed with action, and features vibrant colors that leap off the screen in 4K HDR. But the real standout star is the reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This audio mix delivers from every square inch of your listening space, including wall-flexing bass and a massive amount of overhead information that will make viewers reach for their hardhats to avoid the falling debris. As the pull quote on the 4K Blu-ray box art says, Deepwater Horizon is “Shock-and-awe spectacle!”

 

Here are three scenes that tell a great story while showing off the film’s audio highlights.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 1: “That was a bird strike!”
(12:30-15:00)

 

This scene leads you into the film easily—you don’t want to just jump straight to fire and explosions and mayhem, and this follows the crew as they head out to the DH. It begins in a lobby at the airfield, filling your listening space with background office noises, but as soon as they step out to walk toward the helicopter, the room sonically transforms into a helipad. Note the shift of helicopter blades from overhead to the upper left corner of the room as the onscreen PoV changes. While the crew is flying, the dialogue has a very “headphone” quality to it, but the room is filled with the steady whine of the engines and whump-whump of the blades. At about 14:50, the helicopter hits a bird that slams into the room high up on the wall, left of center, and then wings back through the room. It’s sudden and jarring, and a great use of audio to capture the intense moment. And I bet you’ll get more than one person to jump if you play it near reference volume.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 2: “Biggest damn kick I ever seen!”
(51:00–58:10)

 

This scene just builds and builds in intensity and destruction, setting the stage for the final scene. The crew starts pulling back the drill and pumping out the mud when everything goes sideways. There’s deep rumbling as the mud starts flowing back up the drill line and explodes in a geyser that sprays mud, rock, and water all over the room. The water rushes and splashes around, a steady geyser jetting up the front wall and splashing down overhead.

 

In between the mayhem, notice the vibrant reds of the worker’s uniforms, especially contrasted with the mud-covered employees out on the deck. At 53:50, you pan outside and up the rig and travel to the ocean’s floor, the rumblings and waves swirling and rocking around the room. Bass explosions are powerful and deep, and a well-calibrated system should have you feeling the effects in your seat. At 56:30, glass starts shattering all around the control room, letting you clearly pinpoint each window’s location. After the mud-covered seagulls fly around in the confined space, the film cuts back into the pumping room, and you can hear sounds surrounding every inch of the 360-degree space around your listening position.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 3: “We’ve got to get to the boats!”
(1:18:42–1:27:40)

 

This scene runs a bit long, but it has plenty of excitement to hold your attention. With the DH engulfed in flames, the crew is looking for last-ditch ways to save the rig while racing to abandon. As they rush around the rig, fireballs and jets of flames burst into the room, and explosions send shrapnel ripping into the space, fully immersing you in the conflagration. When power is lost, note how clean and noise-free the blacks are, with no banding or other distracting artifacts. The fire looks especially intense in HDR, delivering ultra-realistic shades of orange-red. Note all the subtle sounds of straining and groaning metal as the rig breaks apart. When Wahlberg enters the water at the scene’s finale, you get some great “submerged audio,” as water bubbles up and laps up and over the ceiling, and falling debris pelts the water around him.

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.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

 

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

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.

Ep. 2: Let There Be Light–And Shades

Episode 2 opens with Cineluxe contributor John Sciacca joining hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger to discuss the reasons why home theaters are making a comeback. At 6:56, Lutron Communications Director Melissa Andresko joins Mike, Dennis & John to talk about the increasing importance of lighting & shading in luxury home entertainment spaces. At 12:13, we all talk about how lighting control can be a form of creative expression, and how interior design is becoming a key element in the creation of multi-use entertainment spaces. And the episode closes out at 23:28 with a quick discussion of ways to beat the wintertime blues.

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CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Luxury TVs Come on Strong at CES

Luxury TVs Come on Strong at CES

Samsung’s 75-inch Micro LED TV

In a time when you can get a free 50-inch 4K TV as an incentive to buy a smartphone (see below), it’s pretty obvious that larger-screen flat-panel televisions are no longer considered luxury goods. They’re a commodity, spit out en masse in specific shapes, colors, and sizes. And while you still have to pay more to get better performance, you don’t have to pay that much 

more to enjoy a pretty darn good-looking picture. Companies like Vizio and TCL have seen to that.

 

This presents a challenge for specialty dealers trying to design higher-end luxury AV systems with larger screens, especially now that many of those systems are moving out of dedicated theater spaces where front projection is the display method of choice. How do you incorporate these huge, often generic-looking boxes into a high-end media room in a truly elegant way?

 

In the world of luxury home entertainment, design matters just as much as picture quality. (I know videophiles may 

bristle at that statement.) Thankfully, as evidenced by the recent CES trade show, TV manufacturers like LG and Samsung haven’t forgotten this segment of the market. Both companies showed off some truly drool-worthy TVs that push the design envelope.

 

For the past few years, LG’s OLED TV lineup has been a great case study in how to sell to the high-end market, and this year’s line is no different. Purely from a performance perspective, the new C9, E9, and W9 series should all be pretty much the same (i.e., awesome).What you get as you move up the price chain are design enhancements.

 

The entry-level C9 has a pretty straightforward look, the step-up E9 has a nicer picture-on-glass aesthetic, and the W9’s “wallpaper” design puts all the electronics in a separate box to give you that gloriously thin, sexy form that OLED promises. This year, LG upped the ante even further by adding a flagship Z9 that increases both the resolution (to 8K) and the maximum screen size (to 88 inches, a first for OLED) to appeal to customers who want a larger, more immersive screen.

Luxury TVs Come on Strong at CES

But the design that really had everyone talking was LG’s new rollable OLED TV (shown above). The screen hides inside a stylish metal cabinet until you’re ready to watch it, at which point it gracefully rolls up into place. We’ve been teased by the promise of rollable OLED for a while, but this is a real-world product that will ship this year, albeit only in a 65-inch screen size.

 

Samsung’s “The Frame” and Serif TVs, which cater specifically to the more design-conscious shopper, have been around for a while. But this year the company is putting its flagship QLED performance into them, which means you’ll get the best of both worlds: Performance and design. The Frame, in particular, is a cool, well-executed concept.

 

One of the most promising and potentially game-changing TV technologies is Samsung’s Micro LED, which can combine the thin form and gorgeous black levels of OLED with the high brightness levels of LED/LCD. But perhaps the most enticing feature for the 

luxury market is that the tech is both modular and scalable. At this year’s show, Samsung displayed a 219-inch Micro LED display dubbed “The Wall,” but also a more real-world 75-inch model. (Getting the Micro LED modules down to smaller sizes is the current challenge.) You’re also not locked to a 16:9 aspect ratio—you can configure the display

however you want, à la a video wall. Check out this video from the show (above).

 

So, can a TV still be a luxury item? Heck yeah it can. I, for one, am really excited to see these new designs come to life in real-world settings.

—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.