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First Man

First Man

Two minutes into Damien Chazelle’s First Man, I thought I knew exactly what sort of film I was in for. It’s the sort of film I consume ravenously. A ra-ra tribute to the heroes of the Gemini and Apollo programs. A moving monument to the men and women who took us from the earth to the moon. A seat-of-the-pants celebration of the space cowboys who left our little blue marble and turned around to show it to us from a perspective unlike any we’d ever seen.

 

I was wrong. So utterly wrong. First Man isn’t that film in the slightest. It’s unlike any film about the space program to date, and that’s largely because it’s not a film about the space program at all. It’s a film about one man. One beautifully complicated, flawed, enigmatic man who just so happened to be the first to set foot on lunar soil. And what makes it doubly fascinating is that it isn’t even a film about how he became the first man on the moon, or even why, but rather how it made him feel.

 

That’s an interesting approach for a man whose feelings were so guarded. And the result is that First Man is a stunningly quiet, introspective, even at times abstract film. It’s a tone poem comprised of muted tones. And it’s an utterly gripping film for exactly none of the reasons you might expect.

 

I hesitate to say much more, not for fear of spoiling the story, because we obviously all know the story by now. But First Man does make it fresh in the telling, in the choices it makes about what to explore and what to ignore.

First Man

There is a scene early on that truly made me understand the approach Chazelle was going for here: Neil Armstrong—played nearly perfectly by Ryan Gosling, who really only falters in his inability to recreate the real Armstrong’s fake smile—is the first astronaut to be subjected to the gimbal rig, a multi-axis trainer designed to make trainees puke or pass out. In any other film on the subject, I have to think the rig itself would have been the focal point. But here, Chazelle keeps the camera locked on Armstrong himself while the world around him blurs. That’s really a metaphor for the entire narrative here. It’s amongst a handful of shots that serve to remind the viewer that Armstrong is the sole focus of this story. If it didn’t happen to him or directly affect him or his family, the events of the Gemini and Apollo programs go unsaid, unseen.

 

Another enigmatic thing about the film is its audiovisual presentation. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the bulk of the film on 16mm, with larger-format stocks reserved mainly for First Man’s dénouement. As such, it’s a gritty, grungy, gorgeously organic film with oodles of grain. You might be inclined to think such a film doesn’t really demand a high-quality transfer, but you’d be wrong. This is one of those increasingly rare films whose imagery just can’t be done justice by streaming—even superior streaming sources like Vudu. Without the full bandwidth of a Kaleidescape download (or the eventual UHD Blu-ray release, one assumes), the image devolves into harsh noise.

 

Granted, on Kaleidescape you’ll have to make the choice between Blu-ray quality with Dolby Atmos audio or 4K HDR with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Go for the latter, no matter your usual audio preferences. First Man doesn’t succeed or fail

based on its audio—in fact, large swaths of the film are borderline monophonic, and old-school surround sound is plenty sufficient for the handful of aurally active scenes. In large part, the sound is a matter of quality over quantity, and its dense mixing of dialogue will put your center speaker to the test.

 

The visuals, though, absolutely demand to be seen in high dynamic 

First Man

range, especially in the way the HDR grade conveys the stark contrasts and eye-reactive brightness of the lunar surface. It’s an effect that’s absolutely essential to understanding and feeling the alienness of the lunar environs, and Armstrong’s emotional reaction during those strange moments of solitude.

Dennis Burger

Kaleidescape "First Man"

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.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

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: Baby Driver

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"

The demo scenes featured in this series of posts are perfect for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Baby Driver is 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 Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

Using R-rated content for demo material is a very slippery slope since it can easily be off-putting to many viewers and obviously isn’t suitable for families. And the most demo-worthy scenes from R-rated films usually contain gratuitous violence, profanity-laced dialogue, and nudity that can quickly turn showing off your system into a turnoff. But these two scenes from Baby Driver are terrific exceptions you can show to any audience without fear of offending.

 

Both scenes show off the strengths of Dolby Atmos object placement and tracking capabilities—so make sure you have the HDR or UHD version of the film so you can enjoy the Atmos audio.

 

Scene 1: “The Bellbottoms Bank Job”
(0:50–6:25)

 

This scene is an absolute grand slam, checking off nearly every box for “What makes a great demo?” It’s literally the opening of the film, so you not only don’t spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it before, you’ll likely hook them to want to see more. It’s a complete story in itself, with a clear beginning, middle, and finale. And, it’s action packed, with some of the best driving you’ll see on screen, with a fantastic accompanying audio track.

 

One of the brilliant and innovative things about Baby Driver is how director Edgar Wright used music to propel and choreograph each scene. This opening plays loud and proud from the overhead speakers, with vocals that swirl around the room, and features a sub-heavy bass line that drives the tempo.

 

Notice how Jon Hamm’s shotgun blasts fire in time with the music. A potent and well-calibrated sub will have you feeling the Suburu’s engine revs in your chest as Baby pushes the WRX to its limits. As he drifts around the city, you’ll clearly hear tires squealing and protesting the physics-defying maneuvers, with the audio tracking every siren, horn honk, and car that whizzes by. While video isn’t the focus of this demo, notice the stoplight colors, with vibrant yellows and reds that push the color-space boundaries.

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"
Scene 2: Opening Credits/“Harlem Shuffle”
(6:25–9:09)

 

This scene couldn’t be easier to find since it begins right after the first demo scene ends.While the first scene is all about excitement and bombast, this one is just Baby walking to grab some coffee before heading to meet his crew. Notice how amazingly the audio tracks the off-camera action. You’ll hear an infant cry far off camera left, and then see a mother with a stroller pass Baby. Throughout, the audio swirls relative to Baby’s perspective and position, with the sounds of traffic, conversations, and jack hammers announcing their arrival long before they appear on screen, and long after they’re no longer in view.

 

Also notice how the audio changes when Baby walks into the coffeeshop. When he pulls out an earbud to hear the barista, the music volume drops and the sounds of the coffeeshop fill the room, with the music taking over as he replaces the earbud. This entire scene displays how a terrific audio mix along with properly placed speakers can transform a media room into an entirely different environment.

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.

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

I’m not embarrassed to admit it: I like Taylor Swift. I mean, I really like Taylor Swift. There, I said it.

 

I think she’s not only fantastically talented but I actually enjoy most of her music. And I really respect that in this day and age, the term “singer/songwriter” actually applies to her, as she’s literally involved in all aspects of creating her music. And as a father of a pre-teen daughter, I also really appreciate the lengths she goes to in order to protect her reputation, having risen to the top of the music industry (mostly) scandal free, and presenting a (mostly) wholesome image that young girls can be proud to look up to.

 

Lauryn (said pre-teen) graduated elementary school this past year, having received all A’s on every report card during her elementary career. And as a reward, I told her she could either have a pair of diamond earrings or I’d take her to see Taylor Swift in concert.

 

The choice for Lauryn was pretty simple.

 

I share this because I think it puts me in somewhat of a unique position to review the new Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour that launched on Netflix New Year’s Eve since I actually experienced that concert live this past summer in Atlanta, Georgia. (That’s Lauryn and me in the photo below.)

I’ve seen my share of concerts, but Reputation was my first stadium tour so I wasn’t sure what to expect. From the moment we entered the arena, it was clear that the size of the sets, stage, and video screens was massive and that this was going to be a big show. While not shown in the concert video, Charli XCX and Camilla Cabello both opened the show, making for an evening that lasted almost four hours. Taylor played for a solid two hours, leaving everything up on the stage, and I left hoping the show would eventually come out on disc.

 

In a way, the spectacle of the Reputation Stadium Tour reminded me of the first time I saw a modern, large-scale play—Phantom of the Opera. I pictured plays as small events, with static backdrops and a couple of changing sets, but Phantom blew me away in terms of what a major production could bring to the stage and live effects. Reputation was the same way, with sets, pyrotechnics, choreography, and production that were far and away above what I’d ever experienced before.

 

Reputation broke the record for the highest-grossing US tour ever, selling more than two million tickets and grossing $266.1 million. That bested the Rolling Stones’ 2005-2007 A Bigger Bang tour, which took 70 shows to rake in $245 million. Taylor did it in almost half the number of shows (38).

 

When I saw that Reputation was coming out on Netflix in 4K HDR video with a Dolby Atmos mix, I was beyond excited to be able to relive it in the comfort of my media room (and not shell out any more money for the privilege!). For us, experiencing Reputation meant buying a pair of tickets costing north of $700, a six-hour drive to Atlanta, fighting nearly 60,000 people to use the bathroom and exit the Mercedes-Benz stadium, and a weekend in a hotel. For you, a similar experience can now be had by simply turning on your home theater, navigating to Netflix, and pressing Play.

 

Most of the show includes songs from Swift’s most recent album, Reputation, but she works in other fan favorites, creatively blending everything together and playing all or parts of 24 songs.

 

I first watched the concert on my Apple 4K TV, and it delivered audio that was shockingly compressed to utter lifelessness. No matter how loud I cranked the volume knob, the bass was anemic and had no impact, and the show never rose above a moderate volume level—which was completely different from the concert experience, where the Reputation PA system sounded absolutely fantastic.

 

With my preamp at 0 dB, I measured SPLs of around 72 to 75, with some parts dropping to the low 60s . . . totally unacceptable! I checked every setting in my system—both on the Apple TV and my Marantz AV8805—looking for some compression button or setting that had somehow been turned on, but no luck. I watched the entire show angry and disappointed that the home audio experience was so lackluster, to the point where Lauryn finally said, “Dad, just stop complaining and watch the show!”

 

Before writing the mix off completely, I watched it again on my Xbox One S and . .  night and day difference! Not only did the concert now deliver bass you could actually feel with the volume at the same 0 dB position, but I was getting SPL peaks up near 100 dB (far more typical), making it feel more like a live concert experience and restoring life to the audio mix. I can’t explain what’s up with the Netflix/Apple implementation of this mix, but it was definitely wrong in my system. 

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

This concert gives you the chance to see someone who is a master of their craft at the top of their game. You can see how much work went into all of the choreography, set designs, the way Taylor moves around the stage and auditorium, how she transitions/blends from one song to the next, and the way she tries to engage with every section of the audience. She shows off all of her talents, singing, dancing, playing acoustic guitar, piano, and working the crowd.

 

One of the coolest things about the show was that when you entered the arena, everyone was given a white wristband. During the performance, these bands would light up, pulse, and sync to the music and where you were in the crowd. Taylor mentions the bands in the show—right before performing “Delicate”—but during the concert, notice them flashing and syncing when it cuts back to wide views showing the crowd. This really made you feel like a small part of the performance.

 

Production values in the film are top-notch, with terrific-looking video, and a film crew that mostly stays out of the way. The 4K HDR images let you clearly see every detail, and keep dark images nice and black, while still delivering bright highlights and lots of color pop, especially reds and golds.

 

On the audio front, the Atmos mix is a little reserved, with most of the audio spread across the front three channels and the surrounds primarily used for crowd noise and some reverb. This keeps the music and vocals clear and in front of you, but I would have liked a bigger, more stadium-vibe mix. The exception where the audio mixers get a little playful is the very beginning, where tabloid snippets about Taylor are read aloud, swirling across the surround and height speakers, creating a nice effect.

 

This was filmed in Dallas on the last night of the tour, and the film does a terrific job of capturing the energy and excitement of the evening. If you’re looking for something to enjoy with a daughter or granddaughter, this is a terrific option that might even convert a few new fans. Are you ready for it?

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.

So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 6

Six installments in, we’ve arrived at the end of our tale about turning a trade show booth into a reference-quality home cinema space. But we’re not here to pat ourselves on the back. Yes, the demo room ultimately drew scores of visitors, and praise from the people who experienced it.

 

But this series of posts was meant to be inspirational, not self-congratulatory. Our aim was to encourage you to not give up on “problem” spaces until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities. The technology and expertise definitely now exist to turn rooms that would have once been dismissed as impossible into killer luxury home entertainment spaces.

 

Here are the key takeaways:

 

Even rooms with weird dimensions can make for a great home theater

If we had focused all of our design efforts exclusively on performance, there’s no way we would have chosen an overgrown bay window as the geometrical inspiration for our room. The hacked-off corners inside the room were driven by the various needs of the outside of the booth. But with the right choice of gear and some optimization with the speaker placement, we made this kooky space sound great.

For more on how to make non-symmetrical rooms work 

to your advantage, see Part 1 and Part 2

 

Choose your speakers carefully—not all luxury speaker systems are made the same

This doesn’t mean that one speaker is necessarily the best answer for all applications. Speaker systems come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. Some are designed like audio spotlights. Some deliver a wider swath of sound. Some subwoofers are designed for in-ceiling placement. Of course, if you don’t have attic space to work with, you might opt for in-wall subs, or even discreet in-room subs (like we did). The point is, you shouldn’t just assume that a speaker is a speaker. Find the right solution for your unique room.

For more on choosing the right speakers, see Part 3

 

Room correction can eliminate a lot of a “bad” room’s worst flaws

It wasn’t that long ago that the room-correction software solutions built into most surround sound systems created more problems than they solved, but in recent years they’ve made monumental improvements. These days, a good room correction system can practically eliminate the need for big bass traps and other gargantuan physical acoustical treatments. And the best of these solutions can even correct for sub-optimal speaker placement.

For more about room correction, see Part 4

 

Acoustic treatments can help solve the problems room correction can’t fix

Since room correction still struggles with some acoustical problems, don’t turn your nose up at physical acoustical treatments. You may find that you can even work these treatments into your interior design.

For more about acoustic treatments, see Part 5

 

And maybe most important of all:

 

Creating a premium entertainment space is a team effort, so pick your players wisely

If, for whatever reason, subtle acoustical treatments are an absolute no-no in your luxury entertainment space, encourage your integrator and designer to work together on alternative solutions. A carefully placed bookshelf or even draperies positioned in the right place can work wonders for the sound of your room. But this requires that all of the

Jack Shafton, Golden Ear VP of Marketing & Sales
GoldenEar’s Jack Shafton on the Finished Booth

 

GoldenEar VP of Marketing & Sales Jack Shafton co-authored the 3rd installment of this series with Dennis Burger. Here’s his reaction to experiencing the completed booth at the CEDIA convention in San Diego this past September:

 

“Upon seeing the finished product when the show opened, I was impressed with how the booth turned out (it looked great and highly functional), and also alarmed by the openness of the demo space. There was already a big crowd milling about the booth (kudos to Kaleidescape) and the theater demo was standing room only. The space was basically open to the show floor, just behind a draped entryway. I waited for the next showing and grabbed a seat before the room filled. I should have known, but the demo of Baby Driver caught me by surprise—this system, in this terrible room, just rocked! And other than the small subs, the sound system was basically invisible. It presented a seamless bubble of sound around and above with pinpoint imaging, and the the subs made the air move with a thunder. Of course I kept thinking ‘louder, make it louder’ because it was fun—although they had chosen a good compromise on volume level. I got the impression after the demo that the other people in the room would have liked to kick back and watch the whole movie!”

players respect one another and their specific design expertise. There will always be some give-and-take. All parties will have to compromise at some point. But if you can find collaborators who know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, your luxury entertainment space will be all the better for it.

 

If you’re ready to tame a problem space but aren’t sure where to look for help, the Home Technology Association (HTA) can be a great resource. And, by continuing to showcase unusual but successful home entertainment rooms, we at Cineluxe will do whatever we can to lend a hand.

 

Before we wrap this up, we’d like to thank some of the greatest experts in the business—in particular, Jack Shafton at GoldenEar, Jon Herron at Trinnov, and Anthony Grimani at PMI—for making our pitifully small demo room sound way bigger and better than it ever should have. And we’d like to wish all of you luck with turning your own problem rooms into amazing sight and sound experiences.

Dennis Burger & Michael Gaughn

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.

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

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One

This is the first in a series of posts featuring killer 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 is made of. Ready Player One is great for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”), highlighting all the creative and technical virtues of the latest generation of surround sound. The Atmos version of RP1 is available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from Kaleidescape, and from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

All you need to know about Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is that it’s packed with ‘80s pop culture references, with hundreds of overt and subtle Easter eggs that will constantly delight any Gen-Xer, with terrific nods to video games, comics, movies, TV shows, and more in virtually every frame.

 

Most of the film takes place in the OASIS, a virtual-reality world of near infinite size and scope where players can select an avatar of virtually any look and design. All scenes in the OASIS are entirely CGI, which contrasts with the film stock Spielberg uses to capture life in the gritty “real world” of 2045. The plot of the film is that characters are involved in a hunt for the ultimate Golden Easter Egg, which will both give them control over the whole OASIS and a half-billion-dollar payday.

 

RP1 is perfect demo material because its Dolby Atmos soundtrack features a Gary Rydstrom sound design that makes frequent and terrific use of all the speakers in your room, really highlighting the immersive audio experience.

Demos to Die For: Ready Player One
Scene 1: “The First Challenge”
(11:25 to 16:55)

 

This is just fantastic eye and ear candy throughout. First, be on the lookout for some famous cars in the race lineup. Easily viewable are Speed Racer’s Mach 5, the A-Team van, the original Batmobile, and Stephen King’s Christine. Once the race starts, the music stops and the scene is all about sound effects. Notice how the smoky exhaust from Parzival’s DeLorean wafts into the room, the smoke dissipating. The rumble as the bridge constructs itself is deep with bass, and the fireworks to begin the race explode overhead.

 

The race itself is pure home theater adrenaline. It’s filled with non-stop, insane mayhem, with cars cartwheeling overhead and around the sides of the room, racers swirling back and forth, around all sides, and overhead, with tires squealing for mercy. Colors are bright, and detail abounds no matter how frenetic the action.

 

Explosions have tight, deep, concussive bass, letting you feel each virtual metal-on-metal crunch—and you can practically track the progress of every bouncing coin or piece of debris. When T-Rex and King Kong get in on the action, their foot stomps raise the bass concussion to the next level, with roars/growls that energize the entire room. At the end of the scene, notice how the mechanical sounds of Art3mis’ bike dying are clearly placed in the back of the room behind the listeners, and gradually move to the foreground as she approaches the bike.

 

Scene 2: “Stacks Explosion”
(57:35 to 59:27)

 

This isn’t a long scene, but it does a terrific job of highlighting the not-so-subtle benefit of having Atmos height speakers, and of audio object tracking. Note how the drones buzz from the back of the room, almost over your shoulders, and then fly up to the front wall. You could close your eyes and pinpoint their position just by listening. You also get some terrific bass during the building explosion, with debris and shrapnel blasting into the room all around you. Real cinephiles might notice that Rydstrom borrowed from himself in this scene, using some of the same creaking and groaning sounds from the Titanic sinking.

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One
Scene 3: “A Shining Experience for Aech”
(1:03:15 to 1:08:33)

 

This last scene is a bit edgier, with a few scares, but never veers too deep into PG-13 territory and is suitable for all but the youngest audience. It’s a fantastic visual recreation of and tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that’s incredibly fun to watch, especially through the eyes of Aech, who has never seen the movie.

 

As the group enters the video library, you hear movies swirling around overhead, with distant thunder and lightning creating the ambience. Notice the creepy score playing overhead, setting the stage inside the Overlook lobby. After the twins go back into the elevator, the tidal wave of blood cascades down the hallway, making the room sound like a river rapids ride, with waves splashing all around, lapping up the walls, and gurgling overhead. The creepy factor kicks up several notches when Aech goes into Room 237, getting attacked by a knife and axe-wielding rotting corpse, with axes chopping through and splintering the bathroom door and then slashing overhead and across the room as he stumbles through the hotel’s infamous hedge maze.

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.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Imagine watching a movie where sound travels around the room with pinpoint accuracy, helping you follow a character as they move around or enhancing the sensation of bullets whizzing past your head, planes streaking through the room, or helicopters hovering directly over your head! That is the promise of Dolby Atmos, which delivers the most realistic and immersive surround sound experience ever.

 

In my opinion, Dolby Atmos is the most exciting development to hit the home market in years and has an even greater impact on the movie/TV-watching experience than 4K HDR video. In fact, when forced to choose between watching a movie in 4K HDR without Atmos or 1080p Blu-ray with Atmos, I go the Atmos route every time. I’ve given dozens of demonstrations both in my showroom and in my home, and after experiencing a properly set up and configured Atmos system, no one has preferred the older, 5.1-channel sound. Atmos is a must have for a luxury installation.

 

Dolby Laboratories launched Atmos commercially in 2012 with Pixar’s Brave, and hundreds of films have been mixed with it since then. (Click here for a complete list.) It is now supported by every major movie studio, and the number of movies, concerts, and even video games with Atmos soundtracks is growing all the time. Atmos content is available on Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, titles

downloaded from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, and from streaming services like Vudu, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.

 

How do you get it?

 

Experiencing Dolby Atmos in your entertainment space requires three basic things: An Atmos-compatible media player, an Atmos-compatible receiver or processor, and a speaker system that can handle however many channels you and your integrator decide to go with.

 

Compatible players include any Blu-ray or Ultra Blu-ray player, including Xbox One. Many streaming players support Atmos, including Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, and the new Apple 4K TV. Receivers and processors are available from companies like Marantz, Yamaha, Anthem, Denon, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Integra.

 

What kinds of speakers do I need?

 

Dolby Atmos systems can support far more speakers than the 5.1 of Dolby Digital—up to 64 in commercial movie

WHAT MAKES ATMOS DIFFERENT?

 

Atmos is the latest in a long line of Dolby surround technologies dating back to the ‘70s. But, unlike previous versions, which were all channel-based (that is, the specific number of speakers the audio was mixed for in the studio), Atmos uses an entirely new process called “sound objects.”

 

Audio used to be mixed with a fixed number of speakers, up to 7.1 channels (front left, center, and right, surround right, surround back right, surround back left, surround left, plus a .1 channel reserved for low-frequency effects such as explosions). With Atmos, audio designers are no longer limited to a fixed speaker layout but have up to 128 sound objects they can move anywhere around the room, allowing sounds to be more precisely located.

 

These objects also have size and weight. Thus, a massive starship hovering overhead has a different feel—and plays out of more speakers—than, say, a bouncing tennis ball. All 128 of the audio objects from the original theatrical mix are retained and represented in the home release.

 

To precisely locate objects around the room, Atmos installations support far more discreet speaker channels, including multiple height speakers placed above listeners to create sounds that truly come from overhead. In fact, theatrical installations can have up to 64 speakers. Obviously, that is more speakers than home installations can support (Dolby Atmos for home cinema only supports up to 34 speakers), so Atmos uses something called a channel renderer to create a custom mix on the fly to remap audio objects to whichever speaker configuration is being used, meaning that nothing is lost between the theatrical and home audio mix.

theaters. One of the most significant changes with Atmos is the creation of two distinct speaker layers, with a bed of speakers at ear level and a second height layer that places sounds distinctly overhead. (See “What Makes Atmos Different?” above.)

The most common entry point for enjoying Atmos at home is a 5.1.2 speaker configuration. (In plain English, that means there are five speakers at ear or floor level, one subwoofer, and two speakers above ear level, for the height channels.) Most luxury installations use a 7.1.4 configuration (shown below). This provides a very immersive experience, with full 360-degree audio 

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

pans around the listener as well as good hemispherical coverage overhead.

 

For an even more engaging experience, companies like Marantz, Denon, Acurus, Storm Audio, and Datasat have receivers and processors that support more than 7.1.4 channels. And for a truly premium home experience, companies like Trinnov and JBL offer processors that can support the current maximum up to 24.1.10.

(While there are Dolby Atmos soundbars that do a fair job of creating an immersive audio experience, these would never be appropriate in a luxury installation, so I won’t be covering them here.)

 

Do I need speakers in my ceiling?

 

Yes. And no. (But mostly YES!) Having sounds all around the listener, including overhead, is key to creating a realistic, fully immersive sound environment, and locating speakers in the ceiling is the best way to help accomplish this. 

 

Fortunately, nearly any traditional, quality in-ceiling speaker is compatible with Atmos. (Dolby recommends using speakers with a wide dispersion pattern—that is, one that sends out sound more like a shotgun blast than a rifle bullet.) So choosing a model from the same manufacturer as your front speakers typically offers the best sonic match.

But if you can’t place speakers above you—due to a coffered ceiling or an open-beam design or difficulties running wire to the speaker locations—companies like Definitive Technology, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, Klipsch, and KEF offer floor-standing Atmos speakers with modules (shown at right) that can create an overhead speaker effect.

 

These angled modules sit atop the front and rear left and right main speakers, firing sound upward, where it’s reflected off the ceiling and bounced back down to listeners. While these can be great problem solvers, the audio effect of these upfiring modules is impacted by room design—ceiling composition, angle, and height, and seating distance—making it harder to predict performance compared to a true overhead speaker installation.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is a now a proven technology, widely adopted in both movie theaters and at home, and is almost always included as part of a modern luxury installation. If you’ve been looking to elevate your home audio experience to the next level, Dolby Atmos is a terrific place to start!

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.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Between passively sitting back and watching a movie and actively being involved in every action and decision while playing a videogame lies a relatively uncommon bit of media called an interactive film. Kind of like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series those of us who grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember, interactive films feature a story that unfolds differently depending on the choices you make at several moments throughout, resulting in a variety of possible conclusions.

 

With its latest installment in the Black Mirror anthology, Netflix is going interactive with the new film Bandersnatch. According to Netflix, “Bandersnatch is an interactive film that reacts to your choices. You’ll be able play on newer smart TVs, most 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

streaming media players, game consoles and web browsers, and iOS and Android devices running the latest version of the Netflix app. If your device is compatible, you’ll see the interactivity badge on the film below [in the upper right-hand corner of the image].”

 

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to enjoy Bandersnatch. Of 

the multiple Netflix-capable streaming devices in my home, several weren’t compatible, including a new Apple 4K TV, Dish Hopper 3, and Samsung UBD-K8500. Those who use Google Chromecast are also left out of the fun.

 

What did work was the Netflix app in my Sony XBR65X930D TV (two generations old at this point) and my Xbox One S. (PlayStation4 is also said to work though I wasn’t able to test.)  I could also enjoy the interactive experience using the Netflix 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

app on my iPhone 7—but watching a movie on a phone is a fairly soulless experience and certainly not recommended. Also, it wouldn’t work when I used the Netflix App from the Microsoft Store on my PC, but would work on the same PC when I just went to Netflix.com.

 

When you try and play Bandersnatch on a non-supported device, you’ll be taken to a two-minute trailer featuring scenes from previous Black Mirror episodes with multiple characters saying, “I’m sorry . . .” and then the primary Netflix account receives the email shown at the left.

 

Bandersnatch’s running time is listed at 1 hour 30 minutes, but your actual adventure could last quite a bit less depending on your choices. Fortunately, if you end up making a “wrong” decision, the film will give you a chance to go back and re-choose. A brilliant touch is that if you decide to make a different decision, you’re greeted with a quick fast forward kind of recap of the decisions you’ve made to get you to where you are. It’s bit like a customized series recap, and I found it pretty cool instead of just throwing you back to where you were. 

 

The first choices are pretty benign and come just a few moments into the film, where you pick which breakfast cereal you’d like to start the day with, followed by what 

music you’ll listen to on your ride into work. As the story progresses, the decisions start becoming weightier and have more impact on the story: Will you drop acid? What will you do with a dead body?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Selection is a simple left, right, and enter, and the branching between storylines is truly seamless in that there are absolutely no breaks, hiccups, or interruptions whatsoever in the action or audio as your choice is carried out. You’ll also start to notice subtle things like in-movie ads that are based on prior choices you made. From a technical standpoint, Bandersnatch is masterfully executed and was fun to watch, err, play.

 

Without spoiling the fun, Bandersnatch takes place in 1984 and revolves around Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), who is working to turn a famous Choose Your Own Adventure book, Bandersnatch, into an interactive video game. The film also includes Colin Ritman (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) as prodigy video-game designer and somewhat mentor to Butler.

 

The story becomes very meta when Butler starts having a psychotic breakdown because of the workload and stresses of immersing himself in creating the game. He begins questioning reality and starts to feel he is no longer in charge of his own life—like there is someone else out there deciding things for him; what breakfast cereal he’ll eat, what music he’ll listen to . . .

 

The seeming “free will” and open ended-ness of the bulk of the story is a bit limited in actuality, and the film ultimately guides you to toward the end, which will have wildly different conclusions depending on choices you make late in the film. But how you get there—and how many times you’ll need to go back and make a different decision—and what sub-stories you see along the way varies based on your choices.

 

Most of the endings are a bit dark, twisted, and macabre, fitting in with what Black Mirror viewers have come to expect from the series. But I found them all varied and interesting enough that I enjoyed going back and re-choosing decisions over a period of 2.5 hours until I felt I had seen all the possible outcomes.

 

Bandersnatch is presented in 4K HDR and looks good, especially the many night and dark scenes in Butler’s room. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also does an admirable job of keeping dialogue intelligible while adding some nice atmospheric effect.

 

Black Mirror is an episodic show that has been described as a modern version of The Twilight Zone revolving around technology. IMDB describes it as “An anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

 

For those who are fans of the series, or just looking to expand their viewing options for an evening, Bandersnatch is unlike anything you’ve watched before and definitely makes for an interesting experience.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The High Cost of High Expectations

The High Cost of High Expectations

photo by Tom Pumford

The other day I had the opportunity to work on a job using a camera system I had only heard stories about—that is to say, I had never personally used it for my paid professional work. Needless to say I was more than a little excited, struggling to contain my inner fanboy, as I began the shoot. After about an hour behind the lens, something became increasingly clear, something I wasn’t expecting . . . I hated the camera. Oh, I loathed it. It threw me for a complete loop, for how could I, after all these years of yearning, not only be disappointed by this machine but actually be upset by it?

 

I’ve seen the same happen to AV enthusiasts time and time again. The reason often has to do with many of our opinions being formed by the opinions of others rather than being based on firsthand knowledge. It took me all of an hour to realize I would never recommend this product to another despite it winning countless Best Of awards and being the IT product to have in a given year. More shocking still was that when I quietly shared my displeasure with a few of my colleagues, they instantly rushed to the defense of . . . the product! As if my personal opinions (that is what we’re talking about here) were invalid, and it was me who had the problem—not the product!

 

When we self-identify with a hobby, product, or group, we take offense when that something is called out or criticized. For if there is something wrong with our choice in whatever, that must mean there is something wrong with us . . . right? Better to attack what threatens us rather than reason with it, even if this means not being able to reason with our very selves. It is this latter point that I find especially prevalent among AV enthusiasts—especially older diehards (or dare I say, blowhards).

 

I have on numerous occasions been in the presence of individuals who have five- and six-figure AV systems that others heap praise upon for their drool-worthiness, and yet know that these same individuals spend nearly zero time enjoying their setups. I know that if many had to do it all over again, they would likely never have purchased much of the gear they currently own, opting for something less intrusive and cumbersome. They stick with it because of this notion of clout.

 

I’ve watched people listen intently to something they clearly do not like and still buy it anyway because it must be them—the customer—who is missing something. That with time they will see the light so to speak. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we feel we are incapable of trusting our own judgement when it comes to AV equipment? Is the draw of an award, or the seemingly endless string of others who “believe,” that strong of a pull that we’re willing to lie to ourselves? Or is it because we build up so many products into “legend” that the mere idea they may be “mortal” is too much for us to take?

 

I don’t pretend to know the exact answers.Suffice to say that the phenomenon is very real and only growing stronger, as more and more people in this world are choosing to live vicariously through the actions and ideas of others. Don’t believe me? I recently produced a video entitled “Vinyl Sucks” for YouTube, and within three days it garnered over 100,000 views and over 

1,500 negative comments—mostly directed at me on a personal level for my opinion. The funny thing about this being, I don’t think vinyl sucks, and in the video I say as much. I even explain that despite its shortcomings, it has great value to me and others. But I opened with a critical—albeit humorous—jab, and as a result I was roasted for it.

Why is there a right way and a wrong way to enjoy your favorite music and movies? If there is, who decides? Have you lied to yourself about equipment you’ve purchased in the past, or maybe even currently own?

Andrew Robinson

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

Venom

Venom

I’ll freely admit that I’m a superhero-movie fan. Ever since seeing the original, Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie as an 8-year-old, I’ve loved watching these heroes battle to save the planet up on the big screen, and now in the comfort of my own home.

 

No franchise has done more to raise the bar of the superhero genre than Marvel, which, for the past 10 years, has been crafting a spectacular, epic tale that has gradually been drawing an entire universe of characters together in a battle for half the galaxy that began in Avengers: Infinity War and will culminate in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. (Not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe [MCU], but still spectacular superhero viewing includes Wonder Woman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, especially The Dark Knight, which transcends the superhero genre into the realm of simply spectacular cinema.)

 

I bring this up because as much as I enjoy superhero films, I knew virtually nothing about Venom prior to watching. In fact, my only previous knowledge of the character was his appearance in the 2007 Spider-Man 3. From that film, I learned that Venom was an alien entity that bonded with Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and kind of became like a bad version of the character, wearing a black version of Spidey’s costume.

 

With this latest reboot of the character, I expected Venom to continue the MCU trend of bringing multiple characters together, or would at the very least include Tom Holland, who has taken over Spidey’s mantle starting in Captain America: Civil War and continuing in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Infinity War.

 

Well, umm, no.

 

While it was made in association with Marvel Studios, Venom is a standalone Sony Pictures release bearing no obvious connection to the MCU or even to Spider-Man. This is part of a complicated legal and licensing agreement between Sony and Marvel that you can read more about here.

 

So, unless you’re a hardcore Venom fan, you can scrap everything you think you might know about Venom and just go into this cold. In fact, knowing nothing might actually be the best way to approach this, since you won’t be burdened by any required geek-cred knowledge of backstories, interwoven plot lines, or fear of missing any fanboy Easter eggs.

 

This is an origin story, attempting to introduce and launch a new expanded universe of Spider-Man characters. But the film has a big shortcoming in the casting of (or maybe it’s the direction or the dialogue given to) Tom Hardy, who plays both Edie Brock and Venom. Brock is supposed to be this killer investigative journalist, but, honestly, Hardy comes across as just too slow, clunky, and dim-witted to be even close to believable in this role, and the early scenes with him as a journalist were the hardest for me to just sit back and enjoy.

 

Fortunately, your suspension of disbelief over Hardy’s journalistic prowess doesn’t need to last long, as he soon bonds with the alien symbiote Venom, who was brought back from a space exploration mission and kept locked in a lab looking for a compatible host. Once Hardy absorbs Venom, the rest of the film has him coming to terms with his new amorphous, shape-

shifting, and head-chomping alter-ego as the movie transitions from one action piece to another as the duo looks to take down the techno-billionaire bad guy. Actually, I found Hardy more believable post-infection since his body adapting to the “parasite” offers an explanation for his semi out-of-it behavior.

 

One thing Sony knows how to do is release fantastic-looking 4K HDR films,

and Venom is no exception. Detail and color are first-rate throughout, but especially during the multiple night scenes in San Francisco, where the city looks stunning. These shots take full advantage of HDR to produce bright lights and vibrant colors while retaining deep and solid black levels.

 

Venom has no shortage of big action scenes and visual effects, which all look terrific. One of the best scenes is a chase through downtown San Francisco (happening around the 54-minute mark) that highlights the best of what Venom is: Pure balls-out mayhem, with a liberal dose of SFX thrown in for good measure. Just don’t count how many times The Rialto theater appears in the background. Rather, sit back and enjoy the cars smashing and Brock/Venom racing manically through the crowded streets on a motorcycle.

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is equally impressive, offering a very dynamic mix that will definitely give your system a workout. There are tons of moments where the height channels are called into action, whether it’s drones or helicopters flying overhead, gun mayhem, or just the ambience representing the acoustic space on screen. Bass is particularly impressive, having a ton of weight and impact, with explosions you’ll feel in your chair. Venom’s voice is also recorded with a very cool effect, booming from all around and sounding like it’s coming from inside your head. 

 

The Kaleidescape download includes five pre-marked scenes, along with several bonus features, including multiple making-of docs, deleted scenes, and a special “Venom mode” that engages “informative pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics, and to reveal hidden references that even a seasoned Venom-fan may have missed!”

 

Venom belongs to that increasing group of films that sees a real divide between critics and fans. While scoring a meager 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, it managed an 85% audience score. In short, I’d say Venom is a classic big summer popcorn action film where it pays to check your brain at the door and just sit back and marvel (no pun intended) at the terrific visual effects and pummeling Dolby Atmos audio track. If you’re looking for some home theater eye and ear candy, Venom won’t disappoint.

John Sciacca

Venom

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.